Friday, December 13, 2019

The Erickson Report, Page 2: Why is New Year's Day on January 1?

Why is New Year's Day on January 1?

So now the natural follow-up: Why is January 1 New Year's Day? Because that wasn’t always true. So why?

In large part, the reason has to do with the convenience of the Roman senate, a calendar almost no one uses any more, and the stubbornness of tradition.

The earliest recorded New Year's celebrations are believed to have been in Mesopotamia about 4000 years ago, that is, about 2000 BCE. Babylonians began the year with the first new Moon after the vernal equinox and greeted it with a multi-day celebration called Akitu. This actually is a logical time to start the year, since the vernal equinox is the first day of spring, in mid-March, and spring is traditionally a time of beginnings, of renewals, of planting crops and the birth of new farm animals.

Some other ancient cultures used different days, but all had some astronomical or astrological significance:

The Egyptians used the heliacal rising of the star Sirius, the brightest star in the constellation Canis Major or the Big Dog. This took place in mid-July and it predicted the annual flooding of the Nile, an event so important to their agriculture.

Persians used the vernal equinox; the Phoenicians, the autumnal equinox, which is the first day of fall; while the Greeks used the winter solstice, the first day of winter.

All these choices carried some meaning beyond the date itself. January 1 doesn’t. So why January 1?

An early Roman calendar designated March 1 as the first day of a new year. This also explains something else you may have wondered about: If March is the first month of year, September is the seventh - and the Latin for "seven" is septem. Likewise, October, November, and December: octo being Latin for "eight," novem for "nine," and decem for "ten." Those months were named as they were because they were the seventh, eighth, ninth, and tenth months of the year.

That early Roman calendar was a lunar one, based on the Moon. The problem is, the average lunar month is about 29 and a-half days and there is no way that can match with a solar year of roughly 365 and a-quarter days. You're going to be off by something like 12 days a year. And it is the solar year, not the lunar year, which drives the seasons.

What’s more, that calendar consisted of 10 months and a 304-day year and didn't even count the days between the end of December and the beginning of the year at the vernal equinox, with the vernal equinox apparently being designated March 1.

The calendar was reformed around 713 BCE to add the months of January and February, creating a year of 355 days, still 10 days off the solar year. To correct this, the Romans from time to time inserted a leap month of about 22 days into February, which served to overcorrect the disparity between the calendars, giving them some time before the error again got so big that another leap month was required.

Next, according to general but apparently not universal agreement among historians, in about 153 BCE the Roman Senate moved first day of year to January 1 because that was beginning of the civil year, time that newly elected Roman consuls began their terms in office, and it was felt to be just more convenient to have the civil year and the legal year start on same day. January is also a reasonable time because January was named for Janus, the Roman god of gates, doors, and beginnings - that is, the god of all transitions - who had two faces so that he could see both the past and the future.

Julius Caesar
Despite all the attempts at correction, by the time of Julius Caesar, the calendar was again seriously out of whack with the solar year. So in 46 BCE Caesar introduced a new, solar-based calendar. This Julian calendar, as it came to be called, also introduced the use of leap years to keep the calendar year from drifting too far from the solar year and came with a decree that firmly fixed January 1 as the start of the new year.

After the Roman empire fell, the generally-accepted year for that being 476, and as Christianity began spread across Europe, the Catholic church, which remember had previously adopted and adapted a fair part of the merry side of Saturnalia, now felt it was in a position to downplay "pagan," "unchristian" festivals such as those that had come to surround the new year in Rome.

In 567, the second Council of Tours banned the use of January 1 as the first day of the new year. Remember, this is at a time in European history when the authority of the church in civil matters, not just religious ones, was all but unquestioned. If the church said do it, governments did it.

As a result, in the Middle Ages in Europe, the official new year started at different times in different places, including December 25, by then the traditional birthday of Jesus; the old day of March 1; March 25, the Feast of the Annunciation and right around the vernal equinox; and even Easter, even though was a different day year to year.

But remember: Julius Caesar had set January 1 as New Year’s Day in 46 BCE - which means that by time the Council acted, the practice of keeping that as the first day of the year had been going on for 613 years and was so well established that a lot of people simply ignored the "official" date and kept to the older one.

Pope Gregory XIII
The Julian calendar also was flawed because the solar year is actually a few minutes shorter than 365 days and six hours, so the use of leap years every four years slightly over-corrects the difference. A few minutes may not seem like a big difference, but again the error accumulates over time and by the latter 1500s it had grown to 10 days.

In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII oversaw design of new, more accurate calendar, which changed the rule of leap years such that only century years divisible by 400, not 4, would be leap years, the better to prevent the over-correction of the Julian calendar. Thus, 2000 was leap year, but 1900 wasn't and 2100 won't be.

This still leaves a tiny over-correction but it will take over 3000 years for that error to build up to a single day, so nobody really cares.

Most significantly for our story here, Pope Gregory apparently knew a losing battle when he saw one and surrendered to tradition, restoring January 1 as the official New Year's Day for the church.

Catholic countries in Europe were quick to adopt the new calendar, with Spain, France, and Italy doing so the year it came out. But Protestant ones did so only gradually, suspicious that the “Antichrist in Rome” was trying to trick them into worshiping on the wrong days.

A Happy and Peaceful Year to all
Scotland, for one, didn't adopt new calendar until 1600. And England, which had used March 25 as start of year since sometime in the 1100s, didn't finally make change from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar - along with its colonies, which included us - until 1752: 170 years later. By that time, the Julian calendar was 11 days behind the Gregorian, which was corrected by removing 11 days from the year: Wednesday, September 2, 1752 was followed by Thursday, September 14, 1752.

There are tales of riots breaking out with people believing their lives would be 11 days shorter or that they had lost 11 days of wages. While such sentiments existed, historians now are of opinion that the story of riots is a myth. However, the change of calendar was an issue in the 1754 parliamentary elections so it's hard to credit the idea that there were no protests of any sort.

Anyway, that's it: January 1 is the first day of year not due to any special meaning or relevance of date itself, but due to the convenience of the Roman Senate, the Julian calendar which almost no one uses anymore, and the surrender of Pope Gregory XIII to persistence of tradition.

So in the spirit of Constantine, let me say Merry Christmas, Happy Kwanzaa, Happy Chanukah, Happy Festivus, for all the atheists like me and all the pagans out there, Happy Winter Solstice, and to all of us, Happy Holidays and Happy New Year. Like the man in the story said, we are halfway out of the dark.

The Erickson Report, Page 1: Why is Christmas on December 25?

Why is Christmas on December 25?

This show will be seen in the weeks running up to Christmas and New Year’s Day. So I’m going to give myself a holiday of sorts and take a break from heavy-duty politics to devote the show to precisely two burning questions: Just why is Christmas on December 25? And why is New Year’s Day on January 1?

To answer about Christmas, about why it’s on December 25 as opposed to June or something, right at the top, you have to realize something. Based on how we celebrate the season, based on how we - and by that I mean Americans and to a perhaps even greater extent Europeans - engage and embrace the season, the traditions we follow in our celebrations, Christmas is expressed in symbols such as Santa Claus, the Christmas tree, brightly-wrapped presents, candy canes, wreaths, and mistletoe, along with local traditions.

It is not expressed by a creche.

Because you know those people who go around saying that "Jesus is the reason for the season?" He isn't. And he never was. Now that half of you are composing nasty emails, let me explain. The season is because of astronomical patterns.

Until relatively recently, people were much more aware of the movements of the Sun and Moon and stars than we are now unless you are either a dedicated stargazer or an astronomer.

Such movements were necessary signs of the changing of the seasons, of when to plant, when to reap, when seasonal rains were coming, when game would be plentiful, and so on. The sky was their almanac, their seasonal calendar.

Some of that awareness lives on in popular expressions and mythology. For example, did you ever wonder why the hot humid days of July and August still sometimes are called "the dog days?" Ancient peoples by their observations were able to realize that the star we call Sirius, which is at its highest point in the sky in the middle of the night in the middle of winter, is at its highest point in the sky in the middle of the day in summer.

Sirius is the brightest star in the constellation Canis Major, or the Big Dog, and is known as the Dog Star. So the middle of summer becomes the days of the dog - the dog days.

In prehistoric times and even well into recorded history, people believed that things like the Sun acted willfully or were controlled by gods that acted willfully - and each year watching it get lower and lower in the sky each day as winter approached, a fear developed that one year, one of these great cycles, the Sun would keep sinking until it disappeared below the horizon, leaving them in perpetual darkness and cold. So each year, when the Sun stopped sinking and began to rise higher in the sky each day, it was reason to celebrate.

This is the time of the winter solstice, which occurs in the Northern Hemisphere, depending an exactly where you are, around December 21 or 22.

"Solstice" is derived from two Latin words - sol and sistere - which together mean that "the Sun stands still," which is what it appears to do at the solstice: to come to a stop and then reverse.

All over the Northern Hemisphere, this was a time to celebrate: Ancient Egypt had celebrations, as did ancient Greece - in fact, in the earliest days, theirs involved a human sacrifice.

The Druids celebrated, it was celebrated in Iran, Native American peoples of North America, including the Pueblo and the Hopi, had their celebrations.

In pagan Scandinavia the winter festival was called the Yule. Great yule logs were burned; people drank mead around bonfires listening to tales of great stories of the past. A boar was sacrificed to the chief god Odin, who donned a broad-brimmed hat and magic blue cloak and sped around the world at night on his great white horse. Mistletoe, which was a sacred plant because it grew on the most sacred tree, the oak, was cut and a spray given to each family to be hung in doorways as good luck.

That is our first reminder that a lot of our holiday traditions - including the term "Yuletide," the time of the Yule - are drawn from pagan ones, including decorating with garlands, wreaths, and the Christmas tree itself, along with the man who can magically fly around the whole world in one night.

For the date of Christmas, though, now we're getting into the space that lies between history and interpretation.

No one knows the date Jesus was born, no one even knows for sure what season of the year it was - or even what year it was. To the extent that the Bible can be trusted as a source we can be very confident that it was not in the winter since shepherds did not watch their flocks by night at that time of year; the flocks would most likely have been corralled.

In fact, "watching their flocks by night" was most commonly done in the spring to protect the newborn lambs from wolves, which had lead some to argue he must have been born in the spring. But that is an awfully thin reed on which to try to build a foundation, much less a conclusion.

What's more, the earliest known use in English of the word "Christes-Maess," or the Feast of Christ, or Christmas, was in a list of Feast Days with Mass Days that was set down in England in 1038, a thousand years after Jesus died. No Saint's day listed for December 25th.

Indeed, early church leaders (I'm talking 2nd and 3rd centuries here) argued about when Jesus was born - the options included January 2, March 21, March 25, April 18, April 19, May 20, May 28, November 17, November 20, and, yes, December 25. And at the same time, some, such as Origen, argued that the whole thing was pointless and wrong because it shouldn't be celebrated at all. Celebrating birthdays, he said, was for pagan gods.

Still, by the mid-third century, the idea for having a day to celebrate the birth of Jesus was getting established. Nonetheless, it took another hundred years for that notion to become formalized and for a date to be fixed.

Meanwhile, in 313, Constantine the Great issued his Edict of Milan, legally allowing Christianity in the Roman Empire - actually, he went considerably beyond that; the text actually says it was "proper that the Christians and all others should have liberty to follow that mode of religion which to each of them appeared best."

Which shows a lot more tolerance than many here do today, especially among our right-wing so-called Christians, the fanatics who get such a kick this time of year every year out of playing the oppressed victim under the relentless assault of the atheistic socialistic hordes - even though Christians make up over 78% of the US population.

Oh, and as a sidebar and contrary to popular belief, while Constantine considered himself “an emperor of the Christian people,” he did not actually formally convert by getting baptized until shortly before his death in 337 and Christianity did not become the official religion of Rome until 380, 43 years after his death.

Getting back to the point, the earliest known reference to Jesus being born on December 25 doesn’t come until the first years of the 3rd century, about 175 years after he died, with the first recorded date of his birth actually being celebrated on that day was not until 336. And it wasn’t until 350 when Pope Julius I officially declared that the birth of Jesus would be celebrated on the 25th of December.

But that just brings us back to the start. How did the chosen date, why did the chosen date, come down to December 25? That was the question, after all.

To answer that, first remember that these developments were taking place in Rome, which had become the nerve center of organized Christianity.

The date brings us back to the winter solstice. The Romans, like many other ancient peoples, had solstice celebrations. In Rome it was called Saturnalia.

This was originally a feast day to the god Saturn, but over time it grew to a gigantic fair and a festival of the home. It began with sacrifice of a pig and involved riotous merry-making, feasting, and gambling. Houses were decorated with laurel and evergreens. Schools were closed; the army rested; no criminals were executed.

Friends visited one another, bringing good-luck gifts of fruit, cakes, candles, dolls, jewelry, incense, and more. Temples were decorated with evergreens. Processions of people danced through the streets, with masked or blackened faces and wearing fantastic hats.

Masters feasted with slaves, who could do and say what they liked - supposedly, anyway. I doubt they really felt free to push the privilege very far since a day or at most a few days later they would be back to just slaves, but hypothetically they could.

(Notice, by the way: traditions including decorating your home. Laurels. Visiting friends. Gift-giving. Holiday parties. Not Christian traditions, Roman ones. Pagan ones.)

The old Roman goddess of the solstice was Angerona, whose festival day was, logically enough for a goddess of the solstice, December 21st.

But when Mithraism, personified by the god Mithra, was introduced to Rome in the mid-2nd century, the goddess was largely supplanted in favor of Mithra's day of seasonal rebirth, which was December 25. Mithra, himself a composite of earlier beliefs, became amalgamated with a Roman sun god named Solis Indigeni, a god which in turn came from the Pelasgean titan of light named Helios.

This new being, this combination of Mithra and Solis Indigeni, this composite of two composites, was Sol Invictus, the invincible or unconquered Sun, and Mithra's day, December 25, became Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, or the birthday of the unconquerable Sun. When the emperor Aurelian proclaimed Mithraism the official religion of the Roman Empire in 274, the day became an official holiday.

Sol Invictus
So, put it all together. Before Constantine the Great issued his Edict of Milan, being a Christian in Rome could get you killed. Refusal to participate in the Imperial cult was considered treason.

During the Great Persecution carried out by the emperor Diocletian from 303 to 311, Christian buildings and the homes of Christians were torn down, their sacred books were collected and burned. Christians themselves were arrested, tortured, mutilated, burned, starved, and condemned to gladiatorial contests to amuse spectators.

So if you wanted celebrate the birth of the man you regarded as your savior - and the idea of having such a celebration was by then pretty widely accepted among Christians - you had to hide it. So since the time is purely symbolic and basically arbitrarily chosen because no one knows the actual date for certain and it's really based on tradition and nothing more, what better time to do it than during Saturnalia - when everyone else was celebrating and so no one would notice? And what better day to pick than December 25, when the birthday of the unconquerable Sun could be thought of as the birthday of the unconquerable “Son?"

Indeed, according to St. John Chrysostom, Bishop of Constantinople, writing in the late 4th or very early 5th century, just a few decades after Christianity had become the official religion of Rome, the "Roman Church purposefully placed the keeping of Christmas between two popular folk festivals, Saturnalia and the Kalends of January, in order to give Christians something to celebrate about [undisturbed] while others were engaged in secular merrymaking."

The Kalends, by the way, is the first day of each month in the Roman calendar; it’s the source of our word calendar. And yes, there was a popular folk festival in Rome the first week of January which was a significant part of the Roman solstice celebrations.

By the year 354 CE, four years after Pope Julius I had designated it as such, December 25 had been accepted in Rome as the date of the Feast of Christ, or Christ-Mass, Christmas. Gradually most of the Christian Church agreed.

Once Christianity became the legal religion of Rome in 380, the church began appropriating what old pagan customs it could, with the result that the merry side of Saturnalia was gradually adopted and adapted to the observance of Christmas.

And so that is why Christmas in on December 25: Because Christians hid within, then adopted, then adapted, pagan celebrations of the winter solstice. By 1100 Christmas was the peak celebration of the year for all of Europe.

But let me finish up by saying that even then the idea was not universally accepted. Origen's conviction that celebrating the birth of a god was for pagans persisted among conservative Christians for centuries, including among the separatists and Puritans who settled Plymouth and Boston here in Massachusetts. They regarded Christmas as a pagan celebration with no Biblical justification. Puritans called it “Foolstide,” proving that no, puns are not a recent invention. In fact, there were laws against it.

As an illustration of the attitude, we have the journal of Plymouth Colony governor William Bradford, who in the entry for 1621 recalled what he called a passage "rather of mirth then of weight." (Spelling in the excerpt has been modernized.)
On the day called Christmas day, the Governor called them out to work, (as was used,) but the most of this new company [Here is referring to some people who had arrived the month before, in November 1621, on a ship called “Fortune.”] excused themselves and said it went against their consciences to work on that day. So the Governor told them that if they made it a matter of conscience, he would spare them till they were better informed. So he led away the rest and left them; but when they came home at noon from their work, he found them in the street at play, openly; some pitching the bar and some at stool-ball, and such like sports. So he went to them, and took away their implements, and told them that was against his conscience, that they should play and others work. If they made the keeping of it a matter of devotion, let them keep to their houses, but there should be no gaming or reveling in the streets. Since which time nothing has been attempted that way, at least openly.
Recall that Bradford is writing here in about 1631 or 1632, about 10 years after the fact.

And not just here at home. In 1647, Great Britain's Puritan-dominated parliament abolished the feasts of Christmas, Easter, and Whitsun, known in the US as Pentecost.

Back in the US, in 1659, the MassBay colony - that is, Boston - banned celebrating Christmas
altogether. The ban remained in place for 22 years, until 1681, and even then it was a governor appointed by the restored British monarchy who revoked the ban.

Despite the lifting of the ban, the first recorded celebration of Christmas in Boston wasn't for another five years, in 1686. For many years thereafter, Thanksgiving remained the important seasonal holiday in New England.

In the wake of the revolution, interest in Christmas in the former colonies faded because it was seen as a British holiday. In fact, Christmas did not become a major holiday in the US until a religious revival in the early 1800s spurred interest in the day, particularly in the South. As a result, it was Louisiana, in 1837, which became the first state to make the day a holiday.

Even then, New England continued to lag behind: In Plymouth, the first time Christmas was mentioned in one the town’s newspapers as far as anyone can tell wasn't until 1825. As late as 1856, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote that “The old Puritan feeling prevents [Christmas] from being a cheerful hearty holiday” in the region, but, he added, "We are in a transition state."

And so it was: By 1860 that same Plymouth paper was filled with ads for Christmas presents and by the end of the century Christmas was as much a part of Plymouth as it had become in the rest of the country.

Thursday, December 12, 2019

The Erickson Report for December 11 to January 2

The Erickson Report for December 11 to January 2

Why is Christmas on December 25?

Why is New Year's Day on January 1?

Sunday, December 01, 2019

The Erickson Report, Page 2: Quick News Hits

The Erickson Report, Page 2: Quick News Hits

A couple of headlines of things that would have made it into the show this time were it not for it being our traditional Thanksgiving show.


On November 21, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as long predicted and recently expected, has been indicted on charges of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust. He faces the possibility of more than 10 years in prison. To show some things are truly transnational among the right wing, he called the charges a "witch hunt" and a "political coup" and called for an investigation of the investigators.

This comes as Benny Gantz failed to form a ruling coalition for the Israeli parliament, meaning the nation is now facing its third parliamentary elections in less than a year.

It also comes just days after the Tweetie-pie administration announced it was reversing 41 years of US foreign policy, now declaring that Israeli settlements in the occupied territories are not "inconsistent with international law," even though they clearly are and remain so in the eyes of much of the world, including the EU.

This is the latest in a string of extreme rightwing Christian fundamentalist moves by the administration, including moving the US embassy to Jerusalem, closing the Palestinian mission in Washington, DC, and halting of Congressionally-appropriated aid to the West Bank and Gaza.


Bloomberg News reported on November 22 that a database aggregating 1.2 billion users' personal information, including social media accounts related to Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Github, with associated email addresses and phone numbers, was discovered unprotected on a Google cloud server last month.

So far, no one knows for certain how it got there, including whether this is the result of data being compromised or just plain stupidity.

But remember, your privacy is their primary concern.


This is something I absolutely don't have time for because covering all the neCessary ground would take too long, I hope it can be the subject of A Longer Look a show or two down the road, but it needs to be said now:

When Bolivian president Evo Morales left office on November 10, he did not "resign." He did not "step down." He was forced out in a military coup, one which was recognized as such by, among others, the governments of Mexico and Uruguay, the president-elect of Argentina, British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, former OAS Secretary General Miguel Insulza, and US presidential candidate Bernie Sanders and which is daily becoming more repressive and violent - although if you relied on mainstream US media, you'd think the coup was equivalent to overthrowing Hitler himself.

As the media watchdog organization FAIR put it, when is a coup not a coup? When the US government is glad it happened.

And we'll end on a happy note: Dr. Scott Warren of the immigrant aid group No More Deaths was facing 10 years in prison on a charge of "harboring unauthorized migrants" for the heinous act of providing food, water, and a place to sleep overnight for some immigrants making the risky and sometimes deadly trek across the Sonoran Desert.

After a six-day trial, on November 20 it took the jury just two hours to acquit him. Take that, Border Patrol.

Saturday, November 30, 2019

The Erickson Report, Page 1: The history-based account of the "First Thanksgiving"

The "First Thanksgiving" story based on historical evidence

This show is on the week approaching Thanksgiving, so it seemed the right time to engage in what has become for me sort of a yearly tradition, where I say gather 'round, kiddies, I'm going to tell you the real story, the based-on-actual-historical-sources story, of the first thanksgiving.

By which, of course, I mean the event that occurred in what is now Plymouth, Massachusetts in the fall of 1621 which is the basis of our now-traditional Thanksgiving holiday.

One of the reasons I do this almost every year is that it is truly amazing just how much misinformation, mythology, and general muddle-headedness there is out there on this topic. In fact, it seems that what can fairly be called revisionist history about the events have become almost as traditional as turkey and pumpkin pie.

I like to try to bring some hard historical reality to the discussion.

So to start our Thanksgiving tale, consider this:
Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruits of our labors. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others. And though it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.
That comes from a letter dated December 11, 1621. It was written to an otherwise-unidentified "loving and old friend" in England by, it's believed, Edward Winslow, a Mayflower passenger and a leader in the early years of the colony. It was contained in a book published in England in 1622 under the rather ponderous title of A Relation or Journal of the beginning and proceedings of the English Plantation settled at Plimoth in New England, by certain English Adventurers both Merchants and others.

The book is popularly known today by the less cumbersome name of Mourt's Relation and consists of eyewitness accounts of various events during the first year of the settlement.

Here's why that letter is important here: It is the only contemporaneous account of what we know as the "First Thanksgiving" which is known to exist.

The only other even near-contemporaneous account comes from William Bradford, long-time governor of the settlement, who wrote about it in his journal at least 10 to 12 years later. Even there he just sort of brushes by it, endorsing Winslow by referring to "not feigned but true reports."
They now began to gather in the small harvest they had, and to fit up their houses against the winter, being all well recovered in health and strength and had all things in good plenty. For as some were thus employed in affairs abroad, others were exercised in fishing, about cod and bass and other fish, of which they took in good store, of which every family had its portion. All the summer there was no want; and now began to come in store of fowl, as winter approached, of which this place did abound when they came first (but afterward decreased by degrees). And besides waterfowl there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison, etc. Besides they had about a peck a meal a week to a person, or now since harvest, Indian corn to the proportion. Which made many afterwards write so large of their plenty here to their friends in England, which were not feigned but true reports.
That's it. That's all of it. That's what the entire "First Thanksgiving" story is built on. Everything else is speculation, interpretation, some questionable third- and fourth-hand accounts, and guesswork, some of it informed, all too much of it not.

Some things we can tell from the accounts: For one thing, based on other references in those same sources, we know that the event took place after September 18 and before November 9. Mostly likely, it was in late September or the beginning of October, as that would have been shortly after harvest.

In considering the event, the first thing to realize is that this was not a "thanksgiving." To someone of the period, a thanksgiving was a religious occasion, a day set aside for prayer to give thanks to God for some special and unexpected blessing.

The first public day of thanksgiving in the town actually came in the summer of 1623: A crop-threatening drought had lead to a day of "humiliation," a day of fasting and prayer to beg forgiveness for whatever they had done to cause God to bring this on them. Literally immediately after, the same day, there came a soaking rain which saved the crops and so a day of thanksgiving seemed appropriate.

So no, this was not a thanksgiving. Such days would occur occasionally as the cause arose; to plan for one in advance, much less to plan for one every year as we do now, would be regarded as a gross presumption on God's will and intentions.

What this was instead was a very traditional English harvest feast, a celebration of a good harvest to which it was customary to invite those who had been helpful to you over the course of the year  - which is very likely why the natives were there: They had indeed been helpful, so they were invited. True, the settlers didn't have a good harvest - note that Bradford describes it as "small" - but they had a harvest. That surely raised everyone's spirits: It indicated they were going to make it. Reason enough for a celebration, especially considering what they had been through to get to that point.

I want to make a quick aside to explain a rather subtle point more clearly: Europeans of the 17th century - especially the more religiously-conservative sorts, such as those that lead the Plimoth (as it was often spelled at the time) settlement - did not make the sort of clear distinctions between what is "religious" and what is "secular" that we do today. The sense of, a feeling of, an awareness of, the "hand of God" or the "will of God" was much more central to their lives than it is to the vast majority of us now.

What that means here is that the 1621 harvest feast would surely have included prayers of thanks to God and perhaps a sermon from their religious leader, Elder William Brewster, as significant features of the event, just as prayer would have been a frequent feature of their everyday lives, from meals to musket drills to mucking about in their fields, tending the crops.

However, they would not have regarded this as "a day of thanksgiving" as they understood the term: While the prayers would have been significant features of the event, they would not have been the central features; not the purpose, not the point, not the driver behind it. Celebration was, feasting was.

Put another way, had we been able to witness the 1621 feast, to our modern eyes there would very likely have been more than enough praying, giving thanks, and singing of psalms and hymns to make it look like a religious or at least religiously-inspired event, but to a person of the 17th century it would have looked about as (for lack of a better term) secular as such a thing got.

Anyway, back to our story. As for the eternal question of what they ate, we can confident they had fowl such as duck or goose (as the governor "sent four men on fowling" in preparation) and yes, quite possibly turkey ("of which they took many," Bradford said). They very likely also had fish, specifically cod and bass, which are mentioned in the sources, and quite possibly deer.

Another aside: I say "quite possibly" to raise the issue of using historical sources without running too far ahead of them, a sin of which too many of the revisionist accounts are guilty: Even though Winslow says the natives "went out and killed five deer," he also says "which they bestowed on our governor" - the being William Bradford - "and upon the captain" - that being Miles Standish - "and others." In other words, they were given to various leaders of the community, not to the community as a whole. More to the point, we can't tell if those deer were brought soon enough to be butchered, dressed, cooked, and presented as part of the feast or if they were brought afterward as a sort of thank you, a reciprocal gift in return for having been "feasted" for three days.

Bradford's mention of venison doesn't resolve things because in the period, "venison" meant "hunted meat," which obviously includes deer but isn't limited to it. So while they quite probably had deer, either from the natives or their own hunting or both, we can't say it definitively.

Edward Winslow
One more aside: The portrait of Edward Winslow posted here was done in 1651, 30 years later, after he had returned to England. It is the only verified picture of a Mayflower passenger known to exist.

As for the rest of them, we have no idea what they looked like beyond the traditional description of Myles Standish as short with red hair, a description given some backing by the fact that in a book called The New English Canaan, a nasty satire of the Plimoth settlement written in 1637 by Thomas Morton, Standish is identified by the name "Captain Shrimpe."

Getting back to the menu, lobster and other shellfish is another real possibility; elsewhere in the letter that I quoted Winslow mentions that they are abundant in the area - as are eels, of which, he claims, they could take "a hogshead in a night." If you think "eels, eew," know that an English person of the period would have responded "They're just another sort of fish." (A hogshead is a cask holding about 63 gallons of liquid. Yeah, Winslow was likely exaggerating; he was like that.)

Beyond that, we can reasonably argue for some others foods such as a sort of pie made from squash from their gardens, sweetened with dried fruit which they would have brought with them from England, salad from other stuff from their gardens, and a sort of coarse corn bread.

Water would have been the major and perhaps the only beverage: Their supply of barley would be limited (Winslow says the "English grains," which would mean such as wheat, rye, and oats as well as barley, "grew indifferent good") and there is no mention of hops. No hops, no beer; no much barley, not much ale. Even if they did have some barley, there may well would not have been enough time for brewing since harvest. And while they did bring beer with them on the voyage, it is highly unlikely that there was any significant amount of that left nearly a year later. So they might have had a little ale or even maybe a little wine brought from England and reserved for a special occasion, but again is was likely mostly, and possibly only, water.

So that is pretty much it, pretty much everything we know or can reasonably assume about the event itself. Not much to build a whole mythology on, is it?

Even so, it drove the pap we got fed as children, marked by images of picnic tables laden with turkey, mashed potatoes, and apple pies surrounded by natives dressed like they just came from the great plains and smiling "Pilgrims" dressed in the fashions of the 1690s.

And that same sparseness of detail - and one of the reasons I go through this almost every year - is probably a good part of the reason the event provides so much latitude to those who want to replace the childhood (and childish) image of noble settlers and savage natives with one of noble natives and savage settlers, who every year, regular as clockwork, treat us to the historical revisionism that has, again, become as traditional as turkey and cranberry sauce.

In place of the happy talk mythologies of peace, love, and harmony we were spoon-fed as children we find people snarling out dark tales of drunken, murderous, bloodthirsty settlers facing off with natives "crashing the party" at the feast and doing it in such numbers because Massasoit feared he'd be kidnapped or killed otherwise. It is a vision that, as much as the earlier one, is an attempt to overwrite history with ideology. It is, in other words, pure bunk.

In point of historical fact, relations between Plymouth and the neighboring natives were reasonably good for several decades. There were stresses and strains and disruptions, yes, but for the most part they managed to keep intact the peace agreement-mutual defense pact they made in the spring of 1621.

Things gradually got worse and I won't go into all the reasons why but the biggest two were population pressure and disputes over land that were rooted in vast cultural differences between the natives and the English.

For one specific, the native culture had no concept of land ownership. Not just they didn't own the land, or that everyone owned the land, or the Great Spirit owned the land; no, the idea of land as something you could possess just didn't exist. To own something, for the natives, meant you could pick it up and carry it away with you. How could you own something if you have to leave it behind anytime you go anywhere? Which makes real sense, especially for a semi-nomadic people who live in one area for part of the year and another area the rest of the year.

But for the settlers, for any European, land ownership, which by its nature includes the concept of exclusive use, was an everyday concept. That cultural chasm was a source of repeated conflict.

The peace finally, irrevocably, completely broke down - but that was in 1675, more than 50 years after the so-called "First Thanksgiving." The point here is that at that time, in the fall of 1621, native-settler relations were good.

In fact, the very next sentences of the Winslow letter I quoted above are these:
We have found the Indians very faithful in their covenant of peace with us; very loving and ready to pleasure us. We often go to them, and they come to us; some of us have been fifty miles by land in the country with them.
Winslow also says that all the other native leaders in the vicinity have made peace with Plymouth on the same terms as Massasoit, as a result of which, he asserts, "there is now great peace amongst the Indians themselves, which was not formerly." He goes on to say that:
We for our parts walk as peaceably and safely in the wood as in the highways in England. We entertain them familiarly in our houses, and they as friendly bestowing their venison on us. They are a people without any religion or knowledge of God, yet very trusty, quick of apprehension, ripe-witted, just.
(Just to be certain you know, "trusty" means trustworthy, not trusting, and "quick of apprehension" does not mean quick to be apprehensive. It means quick to understand, quick to grasp the meaning of something. As for "religion," in his later book Good News from New England Winslow says "therein I erred" and goes on the describe the native religion, as least as he understands it.)

That does not sound either like bloodthirsty settlers eager to kill natives or like natives who feared contact with those same settlers or felt they had to display mass force to avoid being kidnapped or killed.

If you're still not convinced, consider that in June 1621, three or four months earlier, the town felt it necessary to send a message to Massasoit requesting that he restrain his people from coming to the settlement in such numbers. This is from Mourt's Relation, this is the message they sent to Massasoit.
But whereas his people came very often, and very many together unto us, bringing for the most part their wives and children with them, they were welcome; yet we being but strangers as yet at Patuxet, alias New Plymouth, and not knowing how our corn might prosper, we could no longer give them such entertainment as we had done, and as we desired still to do.
That's how "afraid" the natives were of the settlers, so "afraid" the town had to ask them not to come around so much.

Assigning the role of angel or demon to either side is trash: Neither of these peoples were either. Neither were saints, neither were devils.

So I reject the revisionist history, indeed I resent the revisionist history. I resent it first because it’s lousy history. It's based on ideology, not information; it looks to satisfy demands of politics, not of scholarship, and it is every bit as full of false tales and mythology as the nonsense and pap that we got fed as schoolchildren.

Plymouth in the fall of 1621 genuinely was a scene of peaceful and friendly relations, of good feeling, between English settlers and their nearest native neighbors. The "First Thanksgiving" was a moment of celebration when everyone on both sides, even if they were still wary each of the other, believed that yes, this was going to work out.

That wasn’t going to happen; it was a false hope, even a foolish hope. It was brief enough moment, lasting by even a generous understanding no more than a few decades, and a rare enough moment in our nation's history of cruelty toward and genocide of the native peoples of this continent such that while "the First Thanksgiving" shouldn't be a source of happily-ever-after "why can't we all just get along" fairy stories, neither is there any need to co-opt it into the service of ideology-driven revisionism.

Because that moment of hope did exist. And frankly, I resent the attempts to strip away that one moment of hope in pursuit of a modern political agenda.

I remember a friend of mine some years ago talking about “the urge to find angelic forces in the world,” that is, the seeming need many of us have to fix on some group, some movement, some something that we can convince ourselves is utterly pure in its motives and behavior. In our attempts to find some better balance in our understanding of what was done to the natives of North America, the cruelties inflicted on them, the racism and bigotry which targeted them, too many of us in considering the “Pilgrims” of Plymouth have chosen to simply swap one mythology for a perhaps more satisfying but equally false one.

Balance, it seems, is still a long way off.

I'm going to wrap this up with few quick sidebars to round this out, a few details surrounding that first year you might think worth noting.

You often hear the Mayflower referred to as a "small" ship. To our eyes it is, but at 180 tun, it was somewhat larger than an average merchant ship of the period, which went around 140-160 tun, a tun being a large cask that became used as a standard measure of the capacity of a ship's hold.

You also often hear it said the passengers came for "religious freedom." They did not. Not only did they not believe in religious freedom as we understand the term, "freedom" being equated with anarchy, to the degree they wanted what they would call "liberty of conscience" for themselves, those who had been to Holland - which was actually a minority of those on the Mayflower - had it there. In fact, that's why they went to Holland in the first place. Unfortunately for them, they not only found such liberty there, they also found poverty of a degree that threatened to fracture their community. That's why they came to this continent.

It has also been asserted that the first winter was marked by starvation; I've even heard it  claimed that they all would have starved to death but for the corn they stole from a cache while exploring Cape Cod. Again, not true - or, more exactly, half true. The deaths came from disease, likely pneumonia, spread by the necessity of living in close quarters until housing could be built and the ship's stores provided food for the winter. What is true is that they stole some corn, but that was for seed corn for the following spring, which makes it rather silly to imagine it was a quantity sufficient to feed the entire group for some the winter. And in fairness it must be noted that they made good for what they took when they were able to contact those natives after the winter was over.

Finally, they were not "greeted by the indigenous people." In fact, they didn't speak to a native until March and that was to Samoset, an Abenaki from what's now Maine. It wasn't until a couple of weeks after that when they first spoke to a local (Squanto, aka Tisquantum).

So anyway, I hope you enjoyed your Turkey Day, I hope you had time to spend with your family or friends or better yet both and I hope you can understand why I celebrate the day as an expression less of thankfulness for the past (or even the present) than as an expression of hope for the future. That hope, too, may prove as foolish as that of 1621, indeed these days I often think it is - but the blunt fact is, hope is also the one absolute, indispensable requirement for any effort to make that future a better one.

The Erickson Report for November 27 to December 10

The Erickson Report for November 27 to December 10

The historically-based story of the "First Thanksgiving"

Quick notes on
- Israel



-Scott Warren

Friday, November 15, 2019

The Erickson Report, Page 9: India

The Erickson Report, Page 9: India

I'll end with this, because I swear if I were doing a Clown Award this week I would have a runaway winner.

New Delhi, the capital city of India, has been experiencing record levels of air pollution.

How bad? Consider that on the Air Quality Index, an international metric used by public health officials, any reading above 100 is considered unhealthy. In some areas of Delhi, that being the province in which the city of New Delhi is located, during the first week of November that index was well over 900.

Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal said the city had been "turned into a gas chamber."

Not just there, either: In the industrial hub of Kanpur, home to 3 million people, air quality readings have been consistently above 500 for several days.

a street in New Delhi
There have been steps taken to deal with this: Construction activities that could add to the dust in the air were halted temporarily. Schools were shut, government advisories were issued, asking people to stay indoors. Factories that hadn't shifted to piped natural gas were temporarily shut down. Odd-even driving days were instituted.

But even in the middle of this  mess, some people just had to prove what clowns they are. India's Minister for Health and Family Welfare tweeted that eating carrots would help and the Minister of Environment, Forest & Climate Change tweeted an encouragement for affected citizens to "start your day with music."

Not to be outdone by mere bureaucrats, Vineet Agarwal Sharda, a leader of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, said that the pollution should not be blamed on stubble burning or industrial emissions, the most commonly cited caused, but on Pakistan and China, either of which, he said could have released poisonous gases into India because, he said, "they are afraid of us."

Yeah, well, you are pretty scary.

The Erickson Report, Page 8: Iraq

The Erickson Report, Page 8: Iraq

In early October, protests erupted in Iraq, including in Baghdad and several Shiite provinces in the south over unemployment, government corruption, and the lack of basic services such as electricity and clean water.

The initial six-day wave of protests was met with brutal repression that left at least 157 dead, most of them protesters shot dead by security forces in Baghdad.

After a lull, protests resumed on October 24 with even greater energy. Again, they have been met with lethal violence. The deaths have doubled to over 300; the number of injured has neared 15,000.

On October 31, in the face of protesters' demands for new elections, Prime Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi agreed to resign - but only on the condition that a successor is agreed to replace him. There still hasn't been; instead, at the end of the first week of November, competing political blocs rallied around him, as populist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who initially sided with the protesters, has turned to supporting Mahdi.

The result has been an agreement to end the protests by "any means necessary," according to a high government official quoted by AFP, leading to a brutal crackdown beginning on November 9 as security forces cleared protest sites in Baghdad, Basra, and Karbala using live ammunition, tear gas - including firing tear gas canisters directly at protesters and encampment tents - and sound bombs, aka stun grenades. Among those targeted: medics volunteering to help with the wounded.

Officials are now promising to move on a series of reforms, including hiring drives, welfare plans, a revamp of the electoral law, and constitutional amendments, but it remains to be seen if they have crushed the protests and, perhaps more importantly, if these new promises prove to be any less empty than the string of promises which preceded them.

Oil-rich Iraq is OPEC's second biggest producer, but according to the World Bank, 20% of its people live in poverty and youth unemployment is 25 percent. It is ranked the 12th most corrupt country in the world, according to Transparency International.

The Erickson Report, Page 7: Germany

The Erickson Report, Page 7: Germany

Germany is celebrating the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall - a celebration tempered by a bout of self-reflection driven by a resurgence of right-wing extremism in the country over the past few years, including a 71% rise in violent anti-Semitic crimes in 2018 as compared to 2017.

Perhaps the clearest political example of that resurgence is the electoral rise of the far-right extremist Alternative for Germany, or AfD, party. In October’s regional elections in the eastern state of Thuringia, AfD gained 23% of the vote, including a majority of voters under age 30, and finished ahead of Angela Merkel’s ruling Christian Democratic Union.

location of Thuringia
AfD is stridently anti-foreigner, anti-immigrant, anti-Islam, and Euro-skeptic, riding a tide of nationalist isolationism and xenophobia that embraces the "Great Replacement" mythology, the paranoid notion also seen in the US right that the government is trying to replace native-born citizens with refugees and foreigners.

It's likely significant that AfD has seen its greatest success in the eastern part of Germany, exploiting the lingering divisions between East Germans and West Germans. Thirty years after the wall fell, 29 years after reunification, there are still significant gaps in wages, pensions, and levels of accumulated wealth between East and West Germany - and voting patterns are considerably different.

That's why a poll by the Dimap institute found 52% of East Germans believe they have been unfairly treated, 64% believe the two Germanys have not fully grown back together, and another 15% say they haven’t grown back together at all. A significant number of people in East Germany feel they have been left behind, with economic stress leading to a sense of social disruption which, unhappily, is too-easily turned into consuming fear of "the other."

Some cities in Germany and some federal agencies are facing up to this resurgence, insisting it must be opposed. The question is, with they as part of that realization also face up to their own failures which helped create it.

The Erickson Report, Page 6: New Zealand

The Erickson Report, Page 6: New Zealand

On November 7, New Zealand lawmakers approved a bill that commits the country to being carbon neutral by the year 2050. The measure, which passed 119 votes to 1, demonstrates the cross-party support that climate protection has in the Pacific island nation.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said she was grateful that in the past 10 years, Parliament had progressed from debating whether global warming is real to discussing what to do about it.

The Zero Carbon bill aims to provide a framework to implement climate change policies. It's in line with an international effort under the Paris Agreement to limit the global average temperature increase to 1.5° Celsius above preindustrial levels.

New Zealand's bill sets an ambitious target: to reduce all greenhouse gases to net zero by 2050.

The country is well-positioned to do it. It already generates 80% of its electricity from renewables, and that portion will be higher by 2035 as offshore oil and gas are phased out. The government is shifting its fleet to electric vehicles and is working to transition other vehicles to electric, too. The government also has restarted a program to subsidize home insulation and is putting $14.5 billion over the next 10 years into transit, biking and walking infrastructure. In addition, New Zealand has already committed to planting 1 billion trees by 2028.

All of which is to the good - but when officials say "all greenhouse gases," they don't actually mean "all." The bill creates an exemption for biogenic methane, which is emitted by plant and animal sources. That loophole is actually a big deal.

Methane does not persist in the atmosphere as long as CO2 - decades as opposed to centuries - but it's far more potent, trapping about 30 times as much heat as CO2 does.

Ruminant animals such as sheep and cattle release methane as they digest grass and other leaves. Such animals made up 34% of New Zealand's total emissions of greenhouse gases. Overall, agriculture is the largest single source of greenhouse emissions in New Zealand, accounting for a whopping 48% of the total.

So in the case of biogenic methane, New Zealand isn't aiming for net zero but just to reduce emissions by 24-47% over the next 30 years. Which means that if those targets are met, in 2050 New Zealand overall still will be emitting about a quarter to over a third of what it does today. Which would be a dramatic achievement - but it ain't net zero. And it's legitimate to ask how far short of net zero we can go before it's simply not good enough.

Dozens of countries have declared a goal of net zero. Costa Rica, Denmark, Fiji, France, Germany and the UK have all said they intend to achieve net zero emissions by 2050; Sweden has gone them one better by aiming to do it by 2045.

Meanwhile, the world's largest greenhouse gas emitters - China, the United States and India - have not made any zero-carbon national commitments, although a number of US states, including California, Washington, and New Mexico, along with a large number of US cities, have pledged net zero on their own.

The New Zealand nature advocacy organization Forest and Bird called the bill's passage an important first step but says the work is far from over, which is particularly true since the main conservative opposition party, despite supporting the bill, nevertheless promised changes if it wins the next election.

The left giveth and the right taketh away.

The Erickson Report, Page 5: Brazil

The Erickson Report, Page 5: Brazil

Brazil's radical right-wing president Jair Bolsonaro is facing mounting opposition less than a year into his term. Among other causes are Brazil's teetering on the edge of recession, serious accusations of mounting violence against the indigenous population, a bungled speech opening the UN General Assembly, and international condemnation of his lackadaisical attitude towards fires burning the Amazon rainforest.

Now he has a new problem. 

On November 7, Brazil's Supreme Court overturned a three-year old law requiring convicted criminals to go to jail after losing their first appeal even as appeals continue, finding that the law violated the country's constitutional provision that no one can be imprisoned without due process.

Jair Bolsonaro
Among those benefiting from the decision was former leftist President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, often known as "Lula." He had been serving an almost nine-year sentence on corruption charges seen by supporters as purely political.

That was a claim given credence in June by documents provided to The Intercept, which revealed that just days before filing the indictment, the chief prosecutor expressed what were described as "increasing doubts" over the central elements of the prosecution's case and then worked with the chief judge in the case, Sérgio Moro, on the best way to frame the case against Lula. Moro became Justice Minister in Bolsonaro's cabinet.

Those documents also showed that just 10 days before the 2018 presidential election, a Supreme Court justice granted a petition from the country’s largest newspaper to interview Lula in prison - prompting the prosecutors who handled Lula’s case to spend hours discussing how to block or undermine that decision based on an explicitly stated concern that such an interview could help Lula's party win the election. It seems hard to deny that political bias has a real impact on Lula's prosecution.

In the wake of the November 7 Supreme Court decision, Lula appealed for release from prison and was set free the next day. He is still convicted and could potentially wind up back in prison after his appeals are exhausted, but that could take a couple of years.

Lula da Silva
In the meantime, while he can't run for political office before 2025, he can participate in politics. As someone who left office in 2010 with what has been described as "sky high" approval ratings because of having, among other things, pursued policies that lifted millions out of poverty, he proposes to be a real thorn in Boloanaro's side.

The day after his release, Lula, the first-ever working class president of Brazil, spoke to a rally of supporters, focusing on defeating Bolsonaro and improving the economic conditions of the working class, who he accused Bolsonaro of impoverishing. As one analyst put it, Lula does not have to run for office to take center stage, making him a rallying point for a re-energized left.

Bolsonaro responded by telling reporters to "not give space to compromise with a convict" and calling on his own supporters to rally around his government's agenda, which has included exactly the severe tightening of public spending of which Lula accused him.

Watch this space.

The Erickson Report, Page 4: Burkina Faso

The Erickson Report, Page 4: Burkina Faso

Burkina Faso is a landlocked country, a little larger than Colorado, in west Africa. It is also a country facing multiple challenges, not all of its own making.

For one thing, it is one of the world's poorest countries according to the UN's World Food Programme, with 45% of its roughly 20 million people living on the equivalent of less than $1.25 a day. Food insecurity and undernutrition are chronic problems, with over 10% of children acutely malnourished.

That threatens to get worse as climate change accelerates land degradation: Rising temperatures and increasing drought mean that in just five to 10 years of cultivation, soil is no longer able to ensure the mineral and water supply for food crops, leading to yields collapse. One-third of Burkina Faso's total territory is degraded. Half of the farmland has essentially turned to sand.

That in turn has lead to persistent conflicts over land use and massive, climate-driven migrations. Nearly half a million people were forced from their homes.

But fleeing not just food insecurity, but physical insecurity. Over the past few years there has been an increase in armed conflict and terrorism in the country, including an attack on a mosque in the northern town of Salmossi on October 11 that killed at least 15 and a November 6 attack on workers at a gold mine near Boungou that killed at least 47. Nearly 600 civilians have been killed, and scores more wounded, in recent years.

As climate change increases droughts increases land degradation increases hunger increases migration increases fanaticism increases conflict it is to be hoped that Burkina Faso can find a way out - because we could be looking at a hint of the future.
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