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November 5 is Guy Fawkes Day

Today is Guy Fawkes Day. It celebrates the day a traitor to the King of England was thwarted in his attempt to blow up the entire government while it met upstairs.

The plot developed as a way to end state-sanctioned religious persecution by killing James I and replacing him with a Roman Catholic monarch. Guy Fawkes, going by the name John Johnson, leased a cellar under the House of Lords in which to stockpile gunpowder.

Most agree that an anonymous letter informed Parliament of the plan, while some theorize that the government knew of it already and allowed it go on, foiling it at the last moment to ensure massive outrage against the Catholic conspirators.

In any case, Fawkes was found in the cellar with a pack of matches and 36 barrels of gunpowder. He was taken to the Tower of London and tortured. Twelve others were arrested for their involvement; four died in a shootout with English troops. The eight remaining men joined Fawkes in the Tower. In January 1606, they were all found guilty of high treason and condemned to death.

guy fawkes day execution

By law, the men were sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered. Hanging wasn’t the be-all and end-all back then. When properly administered, the execution was just getting started. According to this particularly gruesome Wikipedia entry, a condemned man was:

1. Dragged, usually by a horse, on a wooden frame to the place where he was to be publicly put to death.
2. Hanged by the neck until nearly dead. A short rope was used to prevent his neck from breaking and keep him alive.
3. Brought back to consciousness, if necessary, and placed on a table. His genitalia were removed and his intestines pulled through an incision made in his abdomen. During that time, pieces of his organs were burned nearby so he’d witness as much as possible in case he died before disembowelment was complete.
4. Decapitated and his body hacked into four parts. The head was usually par-boiled in brine to preserve its appearance, then exhibited in the Tower of London, while the quarters were covered in pitch to create a longer-lasting display. The king chose where to send them for optimal crime-deterring value.

Typically, the pieces were then put on display in different locations chosen by the king to discourage would-be traitors who hadn’t witnessed the execution. Out of public decency, women were only burned at the stake to save subjects from the sight of naked lady parts. (I know: they were so lucky.)

Fawkes jumped from the gallows platform and broke his neck. Though the executioners still carried out the rest of the sentence, they were robbed of the opportunity to do it to him while he was alive.

While the capture of Guy Fawkes and failure of the Gunpowder Plot is still celebrated with bonfires and fireworks, it has less to do with 17th-century terrorism and more to do with throwing a party and having a good time.

Lately, Fawkes’s image has been appropriated as a symbol of protest. In the 1982 graphic novel and its 2006 film adaptation, “V for Vendetta,” the hero is an anarchist who wears a Guy Fawkes mask while battling an authoritarian fascist state. The authors wanted to celebrate Fawkes by turning him into an anti-hero for the modern age. Plastic masks to commemorate the film’s release were given to fans.

guy fawkes day mask

On February 10, 2008, Anonymous, a “hacktivist” group, held its first public demonstration against Scientology and its aggressive censorship. Protesters were urged to cover their faces to avoid identification “by hostiles.” Some took inspiration from the film’s final scene in which a crowd wore Fawkes masks while watching the Houses of Parliament explode and burn. Since then the mask has been used by the Occupy movement and by WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.

Many see the mask as an icon in the fight against tyranny. The Yeomen of the Guard would disagree. The English monarch’s bodyguards since 1485 still search the cellars below the Palace of Westminster before each state opening of Parliament. The spirit of Fawkes, for good or ill, lives on.

Copyright © 2017 Worldwide Weird Holidays

November 3 is National Sandwich Day

Today is National Sandwich Day. On November 3, 1762, John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich, invented the—you guessed it!—sandwich. But why, where, how and who?National Sandwich Day Earl

Why?

He was hungry. That’s just about the only subject upon which everyone agrees.

Where?

He was either working long hours at his desk or playing poker in a gambling hall.

How?

He ordered a servant to fetch him salted meat between two slices of bread so he could continue working (or gambling) without smearing grease on his papers (or cards).

A version of events that spread the gambling rumor was reported by P.J. Grosley in his travelogue Tour to London:

A minister of state passed four and twenty hours at a public gaming-table, so absorpt in play that, during the whole time, he had no subsistence but a bit of beef, between two slices of toasted bread, which he eat without ever quitting the game. This new dish grew highly in vogue, during my residence in London: it was called by the name of the minister who invented it.

N.A.M. Rodger dismissed this account in his biography The Insatiable Earl:

The alternative explanation is that he invented it to sustain himself at his desk, which seems plausible since we have ample evidence of the long hours he worked from an early start, in an age when dinner was the only substantial meal of the day, and the fashionable hour to dine was four o’clock.

Who?

Thankfully, the 1st Earl changed his mind about taking the title of Earl of Portsmouth and decided to honor the town of Sandwich instead, possibly because the fleet he commanded was tied there in 1660. Ordering a Portsmouth would be tricky to pronounce correctly, depending on which side of the Pond you’re on.

His great-great-great grandson John, the 4th Earl of Sandwich, probably got the idea for his creation on a trip to the Mediterranean, where Turkish and Greek platters of dips, meats and cheese were served with layers of bread. The first known use of the word “sandwich” in its current context is attributed to historian Edward Gibbon, author of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, who wrote in a journal entry dated November 24, 1762:

That respectable body, of which I have the honour of being a member, affords every evening a sight truly English. Twenty or thirty, perhaps, of the first men in the kingdom, in point of fashion and fortune, supping at little tables covered with a napkin, in the middle of a coffee-room, upon a bit of cold meat, or a sandwich, and drinking a glass of punch.

By 1773, the word “sandwich” had been used in a cookbook for the first time and would forever be associated with Montagu.

Of course, he didn’t invent the sandwich. Rabbi Hillel the Elder is said to have begun, in the 1st Century B.C., the Passover tradition of placing lamb, nuts and herbs between two pieces of unleavened bread in the 1st Century BC. In the Middle Ages, thick slices of stale bread were used as plates for cooked meats and vegetables. The Dutch have a long tradition of serving bread & butter with meat, fish or other fillings and toppings.

But the name stuck so that’s what we call it and it is, for most of us, the only reason we know anything about John Montagu. Though he must have been a big hit with bakers, he was branded as immoral and incompetent by many of his contemporaries. Recently, some historians have suggested that previous accounts have relied too heavily on sources from his political enemies.

Lord Sandwich was also haunted by his troubled personal history. His wife Dorothy became increasingly mentally ill during their marriage. They separated and she went on to live with her elder sister, continuing to deteriorate until she was declared insane and committed.

Montagu took a mistress, singer Martha Ray—reputed to be the inspiration for “My Fair Lady”— and lived with her and their children openly. Divorce was not an option, let alone living in sin. His reputation was irreparably damaged.  It ended in tragedy when she was shot to death by a clergyman who was later rumored to be her lover, although there was no evidence of anything more than a crush on his part.

There’s also the fact that he was First Admiral of the Navy during the American Revolutionary War. That didn’t go so well for the British Empire, as you may recall.

Clearly, there is too much meat in this story to fit between two slices of bread, metaphorically speaking. You can learn much more at  PBS.orgEncyclopaedia BritannicaMontague Millenium, Open Sandwich and Your Dictionary,

Happy National Sandwich Day!

Copyright © 2017 Worldwide Weird Holidays

October 26 is Mule Appreciation Day

mule appreciation dayAccording to numerous sources on the Internet:

President Ronald Reagan signed a bill in 1985, designating October 26th as Mule Appreciation Day. Two hundred years before on this date, a ship docked in Boston, bearing the gift of a donkey from King Charles III of Spain to President George Washington.

We went a little crazy researching this holiday, delving into government records and scrutinizing proposed bills and signed laws. We can report that the bill did exist:

S.J.RES.39
Latest Title:
A joint resolution to designate October 26, 1985, as “Mule Appreciation Day”.
Sponsor: Sen Gore, Albert, Jr. [TN] (introduced 2/5/1985)
Related Bills: H.J.RES.76

Yes, that’s right. Al Gore, senator from Tennessee, submitted this bill. (An identical bill was proffered by Representative Jim Cooper, also of Tennessee.) Both have this notation:

Latest Major Action: Referred to Senate committee. Status: Read twice and referred to the Committee on Judiciary.

We can find no confirmation that Reagan did indeed sign the bill into law. So that part of the story surrounding Mule Appreciation Day is probably bunk. But the actual story is still fascinating.

George Washington wasn’t just our first president; he was also an avid mule breeder and wanted Andalusian donkeys (known as jacks) to mate with his mares. But Spain forbade their export. In 1785, when word of Washington’s wish reached King Charles III, he dispatched a ship carrying two of the prized animals.

Only one of the jacks, dubbed Royal Gift, survived the sea voyage. Most accounts omit this detail and report the shipping of only one,  perhaps because it is a sad footnote to the story.

In 1786, the Marquis de Lafayette sent Washington a jack and two mares (jennies) from a famous breed in Malta. These three historical figures influenced the breeding of mules forever.

Of course, Washington wasn’t the only person breeding mules. The Andalusian and Maltese breeds, along with the Catalonian, Majorcan, and Poitou, were incorporated over time into the development of today’s American Mammoth jack.  According to the North American Saddle Mule Association (NASMA):

There are no longer any real populations of true donkey breeds in the United States. The registries are bound by size, not breed type….The tall, slender black jack may be used for saddle mules, and the heavy-boned, drafty dappled red roan used for draft mules.

Some say a mule is more intelligent than either parent. While that’s debatable, renowned veterinarian Robert M. Miller, a mule breeder, says the hybridization “accounts for his amazing strength and stamina.”  A mule exhibits the best qualities of both parents.

A mule is generally sturdier than a horse, with stronger feet less likely to need shoeing, and will often live and work longer. His legendary sure-footedness and stability make him the animal of choice for those who pack or hike on steep mountain trails.

Because a mule inherits a strong sense of self-preservation from the donkey side of the family, he reacts differently to perceived threats. Miller states that when frightened, a horse will usually panic and flee blindly, often hurting himself in the process. “A frightened mule, on the other hand, will usually assess the situation, and avoid injuring himself,” according to Miller.

Maybe that’s what makes mules the preferred mode of transport on the precipitous trails that descend to the floor of the Grand Canyon. Legend has it that Brighty (a burro) accompanied President Theodore Roosevelt there when he hunted mountain lions.

That last part is a dodgy bit of Internet lore. Brighty (short for Bright Angel) did live in the canyon from about 1892 to 1922 and inspired a book and a movie. Roosevelt visited in 1903. Whether they came in contact with each other is a question for the ages.

We know this much is true: Visitors who ride all the way down to Phantom Ranch can send postcards from the bottom that say Mailed by Mule from the Bottom of the Grand Canyon. 

Mules have played a significant role in our country’s history and deserve to be appreciated year-round. So the next time we see a mule, we’re going to pay him some respect. After all, he might just be looking back at us, thinking we’re jackasses.

Happy Mule Appreciation Day!

Copyright © 2017 Worldwide Weird Holidays

August 30 is Hellespont Swim Day

hellespont swim dayToday is Hellespont Swim Day, when participants will follow the path swum in 1810 by Lord Byron, an English poet and a leader in the Romantic movement.

Byron chose the course in honor of the Greek myth of lovers Leander and Hero. Hero, a priestess of Aphrodite, lived in a tower in Sestos (the present-day town of Yolikabot in Turkey), on the European shore of the strait of Hellespont (now known as Dardanelles).

Leander, who lived in Abydos (now the Turkish village of Nara) on the opposite shore, met Hero at a festival and quickly convinced her that the virginity her parents so closely guarded would not please Aphrodite, the goddess of love.

Hero knew her parents would never allow her to marry an outsider. When Leander vowed he would swim across the Hellespont every night if she would have him, she agreed to hang a lantern in the tower to guide him.

They were happy until one stormy night when Leander’s ardor overcame his judgment and he tried to swim to her through tempestuous waters. When high winds blew out Hero’s lantern, he lost his way and drowned. When she saw his body wash ashore the next morning, she threw herself from the tower to her death.

In reality, as in myth, the swim is a perilous one. The strait is anywhere from 3/4 to 4 miles wide; water flows from the Sea of Marmara to the Aegean Sea via a surface current and in the opposite direction via an undercurrent. This creates dangerous conditions for ships, let alone swimmers.

When Lord Byron went into the water, the swim was considered too dangerous to attempt. He was the first person known to accomplish it. He later wrote, in The Bride of Abydos:

The winds are high on Helle’s wave,
As on that night of stormy water
When Love, who sent, forgot to save
The young—the beautiful—the brave—
The lonely hope of Sestos’ daughter.
Oh! when alone along the sky
Her turret-torch was blazing high,
Though rising gale, and breaking foam,
And shrieking sea-birds warned him home;
And clouds aloft and tides below,
With signs and sounds, forbade to go,
He could not see, he would not hear,
Or sound or sign foreboding fear;
His eye but saw that light of Love,
The only star it hailed above;
His ear but rang with Hero’s song,
“Ye waves, divide not lovers long!”—
That tale is old, but Love anew
May nerve young hearts to prove as true.

Although others have since achieved the feat, it remains a test of strength and endurance. In 2000, Simon Murie decided to celebrate his birthday by tracing Byron’s route. The days of effort it took to acquire permission gave him the idea to create a service for intrepid swimmers like himself. Since 2003, Murie’s SwimTrek has organized swims at 40 locations around the globe. 

Today, the world’s most concentrated shipping lane closes during the swim inspired by ancient myth and English poetry. Participants can race or just enjoy the course, which follows an ellipse to compensate for the current. Today’s date coincides with Turkey’s Victory Day which commemorates its victory in the War of Independence on August 30, 1922.

Happy Hellespont Swim Day!

Copyright © 2017 Worldwide Weird Holidays