Why do we celebrate Valentines Day?

It’s easy to tell when February begins; all you have to do is walk into any store. You’ll see lots of red-colored decorations and displays that prominently feature heart shapes. In grocery stores, these displays will sell you candy, flowers, and greeting cards, while other stores will try to convince you that buying that pair of slippers at 30% off is somehow romantic. Also, jewelry stores are going all-out with their ad campaigns on TV about how their most expensive designs “show her that you truly mean it”.

My first encounter with Valentines Day as a child was when my elementary school class did a valentine exchange, where the students gave each other cheap cardboard cards that depicted our favorite cartoon characters saying “Be My Valentine” and boxes of sugary candy hearts. Since we were still little kids who didn’t have any concept yet of romantic or sexual attraction, most of us just gave these cards and candies to our best friends.

Anyone else remember these things?

Now, as an adult, it seems the 14th day of February is one of the more commercialized holidays on the calendar, alongside the likes of Christmas, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, and Halloween. Businesses big and small push the message that this is a special day to treat your romantic partner with special gifts in celebration of your relationship. All of this begs the question – how did such a tradition come about? Why do we have a holiday that’s all about romance? Why do we celebrate this holiday in wintertime? Also, where in the world did a term like “Valentine” come from?

It turns out that the story of Valentines Day is one that we see again and again when we look at the origin stories of the most popular holidays on the calendar. Say it with me now: an ancient Roman pagan holiday that was Christianized in the 5th century.

Phase 1: the ancient Roman pagan holiday

Lupercalia was one of Rome’s most ancient holidays, celebrating the popular myth that the city’s founders, Romulus and Remus, were raised by a wolf mother. Every February 15th, two of Rome’s oldest hereditary clans who claimed descent from the city’s two founders would gather at the cave where the mythical she-wolf raised them. The clans would then ritually sacrifice some goats and a dog. One young man from each clan would step forward to the sacrificial altar, where the priest who just completed the animal sacrifices would wipe the blood off the knife onto the foreheads of the two men. The two men would then laugh, symbolically absolving their clans’ ancestors (since, according to Rome’s founding myth, Romulus had murdered Remus).

If that all sounds strange to you, believe me, it gets much, much stranger.

After this ritual was complete, the men in these two clans would fashion whips from the sacrificed animals’ hides, strip naked, and publicly run through Rome’s streets whipping the women they encountered. Believe it or not, the ancient Roman women wanted to be whipped, and would run out in front of these naked men to try to provoke a lashing. The reason was that it was believed that those women who were whipped would become fertile. After this bizarre parade, the names of all of Rome’s single ladies would be placed in a big urn for Rome’s bachelors to draw names from, in an ancient equivalent of arranging a blind date.

If all of this sounds unsettling to you, just imagine what the early Christian missionaries who came to Rome thought about all of this. After the emperor Constantine began the empire’s conversion to Christianity, the holiday was eventually banned.

Having said that, during this transitional period where the Roman state and early Christian church became intertwined, it was very common for the various pagan Roman holidays to be replaced with Christian ones in order to ease the religious conversion process for the average Roman citizen. Thus, Pope Gelasius declared February 14th to be Saint Valentine’s Day.

Phase 2: the Christianized holiday

So, who was Saint Valentine? Well, the truth is, we don’t really know. My sources agreed that there were multiple people named “Valentine” (or, more likely, Valentinus) who were meant to be honored on February 14th, but they couldn’t even agree on whether there were two or three of them.

That never stopped medieval Christians from devising legends surrounding “St. Valentine”, who was considered the patron saint of love and marriage. According to these legends, St. Valentine was an early Christian bishop serving in Italy who was placed under house arrest by the Roman authorities for refusing to worship the Roman gods. The judge who had sentenced Valentine happened to have a blind daughter. When Valentine miraculously cured her blindness, the judge went home, destroyed all his idols, and came back to be baptized as a new Christian.

Later, the Roman emperor Claudius II issued a decree that only single men could serve in the Roman army. Well, many early Christians were pacifists who believed war was a violation of the commandment “Thou shalt not kill”. Thus, to get out of serving in the Roman army, young Christian men would secretly bring their girlfriends with them to meet Valentine so he could marry them. This so offended the emperor that he had Valentine beheaded.

This legend, combined with the common medieval belief that the mating season for bids started in mid-February, helped to cement the association in many medieval minds between St. Valentine’s Day and romance. Both Geoffrey Chaucer and William Shakespeare wrote poems about the holiday as a day to celebrate romantic love. Meanwhile, the oldest valentine (as in, a romantic note written to be delivered during the holiday) that we have was written in 1415. Duke Charles of Orleans wrote it to his wife while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London; today, it is preserved in the British Library.

Phase 3: The commercialized holiday

The practice of sending valentines may date back at least as far back as the 15th century, but it was during the Industrial Revolution that modern valentine cards came to exist. In the mid-19th century, an American woman named Esther Howland created the first mass-produced valentine cards for young men to send to their girlfriends on St. Valentine’s Day. Her cards were so popular that soon, other competitors began making their own versions.

An example of one of Howland’s card designs. She famously incorporated lace in each design.

In 1913, the Hallmark greeting card company began making their own mass-produced valentine cards, cementing the sending of such valentines as a staple of the holiday. By this time, the holiday had already started transforming into the commercialized festival we celebrate today.

It was the Victorian-era British chocolatier Richard Cadbury who invented the heart-shaped chocolate box as a way to festively make some money off of his excess stock.

It was also around this same time that the Victorians developed a cultural concept of a “flower language” where you would give someone a flower to communicate some sort of message, with each flower meaning something different. Since red roses were the flower of love and romance, Victorian men sent their wives and fiancées roses on St. Valentine’s Day, and though the rest of the Victorian “flower language” has long since fallen by the wayside, this one aspect of the practice has survived.

Of course, if the advertisements we see every February are to be believed, the biggest way to show that you love someone is to give that person a diamond ring, necklace, or earring. After all, they say “diamonds are forever”, right? Nothing else encapsulates just how you hope your love for each other will last into eternity! This association of diamonds with a lifetime romantic commitment is an ancient one – if, by ancient, you mean the 1930’s, when diamond mining firm DeBeers partnered with the New York-based ad agency N.W. Ayer & Son to promote this connection in people’s minds. The advertisers convinced American newspapers to run fluff pieces about how romantic of a gemstone a diamond is, and made sure some of the most famous Hollywood celebrities of the day wore diamonds in public. In the late 1940’s, Frances Gerety coined the advertising slogan “A Diamond Is Forever”, and this was shrewdly used to convince American men that giving their girlfriends a diamond engagement ring was a requirement when asking her to be your wife.

I think it’s really telling that these days, most people don’t call the holiday “Saint Valentine’s Day”. It’s just “Valentines Day” – a secular holiday to celebrate romantic relationships, with the religious connotations largely purged by big business. Then again, the holiday we celebrate today is so far removed from the ancient Roman celebration that started this whole journey, it makes me wonder how future generations will change the meaning of the holiday to suit their times.

However you celebrate it, I hope you all have a very Happy Valentines Day!

What’s entering the Public Domain in 2023?

One of the most famous early science fiction films will enter the public domain this year

It’s 2023, and you Cat Flaggers all know what that means. It’s time for more movies, books, songs and other creative works to enter the public domain! Today, the U.S. copyrights expire on all works published in 1927. This means that you are free to copy or download any of these works, and even make your own adaptations of them if you so choose.

So, what is entering the public domain this year?

To begin with, one series of novels that I fondly remember from my childhood is joining the public domain, or at least the first three books in the series are. The Hardy Boys are two teenage brothers who go on adventures to investigate various mysteries. I used to own a whole collection of books from this series, and apparently they are still popular enough after all these years to inspire an adaptation currently streaming on Hulu. The first three novels in the series – The Tower Treasure, The House on the Cliff, and The Secret of the Old Mill – all were published in 1927.

But, wait, if only the first three books are in the public domain, and the rest of the series is still under copyright, does that mean the characters are public domain, too? Or are they still copyrighted?

There are quite a few books in this series, written over decades, after all!

This is actually a question that courts have tackled before. In 2011, a collection of new Sherlock Holmes mysteries written by modern authors was published, but the estate of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle sued to collect royalties and licensing fees from the publisher. The estate argued that since some of the original Sherlock Holmes mysteries that Doyle wrote were still under copyright, nobody could use the character of Sherlock Holmes without paying up. In its decision for the case Klinger v. Conan Doyle Estate, Ltd., the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals rejected this argument. The court held that when the copyright expires on a work, the original characters in that work fall under the public domain. Thus, only those specific aspects of the character of Sherlock Holmes that were introduced in stories that were still under copyright were held to be off-limits.

Interestingly, that wrinkle will no longer be the case moving forward, as the copyright to the final book published by Doyle about his famous fictional detective, The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes, expires this year. This means that all of Doyle’s vision for the beloved sleuth is free for anyone to use in their own Sherlock Holmes adaptation.

Other famous novels entering the public domain this year include: The Big Four by Agatha Christie, To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf, The Gangs of New York by Herbert Asbury, and Men Without Women by Ernest Hemmingway.

Now, when I looked at what entered the public domain last year, I noted that the copyrights for the sheet music and lyrics for songs are handled by different laws than the copyrights for recordings of those same songs. Thus, you can now freely perform Irving Berlin’s Puttin’ on the Ritz, Bessie Smith’s Back Water Blues, Duke Ellington’s East St. Louis Toodle-O, or Louis Armstrong’s Potato Head Blues, though any existing recordings of these songs are still copyrighted.

As for sound recordings, unfortunately, none will enter the public domain this year. Last year, a new law terminated the copyrights on sound recordings made prior to 1923. We will have to wait until next year for the copyrights on sound recordings made in 1923 to expire.

But what about Hollywood? Yes, several movies just entered the public domain as well. The Jazz Singer, the first feature-length “talkie” film that used synchronized sounds and dialogue, was released in 1927, so its copyright has expired. Be warned, though, that it was made for a 1920’s audience, not a 2020’s one.

Wait, what’s that second face in the poster? Is that face paint? Oh my, oh no…

Another very famous movie entering the public domain this year is the German sci-fi classic Metropolis, directed by Fritz Lang. Considered by many to be the most influential silent film of all time, Metropolis was a truly innovative movie at the time, inventing several new special effects techniques and inspiring future filmmakers from Alfred Hitchcock to George Lucas.

This year also gives us our first public-domain Oscar-winning film. Wings, directed by William A. Wellman, stars Clara Bow, Buddy Rogers and Richard Arlen in a film about pilots in World War I. It was winner of the very first Academy Award for best picture ever awarded.

So, that’s a sampling of some of the most famous works that are entering the public domain in 2023. Of course, we are now only one year away from the big one. You see, next year, the U.S. copyrights will expire on works published in 1928, and there is one very specific film that was produced in that year:

And as the courts made clear in their ruling on Sherlock Holmes, once a work enters the public domain, so do the original characters within that work. How will Disney’s lawyers respond when their company’s most iconic character is no longer “theirs”? We won’t have long to wait and find out!

Get me the biggest-size tub you have!

Who are the Three Wise Men in our Nativity scenes?

The days are getting shorter and colder. The stores are all busy with people looking for gifts to buy for their families and friends. Songs that everyone knows by heart are playing from every speaker. And, of course, there’s the beautiful decorations everywhere: glittering lights, pine trees filled with shiny ornaments, giant red stockings hanging from fireplaces, and most importantly, statues of people gathered around a humble baby laying in an animal’s feeding trough.

Nativity scenes are a reminder to Christians the world over of “the reason for the season”, the joy and hope we feel as we celebrate the miraculous birth of Jesus. They recreate the moment, shortly after Jesus was born, when visitors arrived to meet and worship Him, as recounted in the Bible (Matthew 1:18-2:23 and Luke 2:1-20). A typical Nativity scene will include the newborn baby Jesus, His mother, the Virgin Mary, her husband, Joseph, the angel Gabriel, a group of simple shepherds who had come by from nearby pastures, some animals to show that Jesus was born in a barn, and three well-dressed and impressive figures bearing gifts for the newborn child.

This trio is often called “the Three Kings” or “the Wise Men” in most Christmas songs and other retellings of the story. The pop-culture version we always hear is that this trio rode across the desert on camels following a magic super-huge, super-bright star that guided them directly to Bethlehem so they could be present on the night of Jesus’s birth. Each one brought a gift for Him – one brought gold, another frankincense, and the third brought myrrh.

Except that is NOT what happened according to the Bible.

The story of these gift-bearing visitors in the Gospel According to Matthew is quite different than the Hollywoodized version you may have learned from old Christmas specials you watched as a child. For starters, the Biblical account doesn’t actually say how many of these visitors there were. Christian traditions in western Europe just assumed that there were three because three gifts were presented; Eastern Orthodox Christians, in contrast, traditionally depict twelve visitors in their art.

This depiction is from 12th-century Cappadocia, in modern-day Turkey. Notice that there are definitely more than three of these “Wise Men” in the image.

These visitors weren’t kings, either. The translators who gave us the King James Version of the Bible were the ones who coined the term “Wise Men” to describe them, and this was a perfectly reasonable translation for an audience of mostly uneducated 17th-century English peasants. However, the original Greek word that Matthew used was magoi, usually rendered in English by its Latinized form, Magi.

Wait, who or what are Magi?

It turns out that the Magi were a class of priests in Zoroastrianism, the official religion of ancient Persia. Specifically, the Magi (or, as they would have been called in Persian, magush) were originally an order of priests among an ancient people called the Medes, who are often cited as the ancestors of the modern-day Kurdish people. In the ancient world, the Magi had a reputation for being superb healers and astrologers, to the point that our modern English word “magic” is derived from them.

Zoroastrianism was founded by an ancient religious leader named Zarathustra who taught his followers to stop worshipping their pantheon of many deities and to instead only worship a single god whom he referred to as “Ahura Mazda”. Later, Cyrus the Great founded the Persian Empire by conquering Babylon. Though Zoroastrianism was the religion of Cyrus’s court, all ancient sources about him show him as a merciful ruler who respected other religions. It was Cyrus who ended the Jews’ decades-long exile in Babylon by allowing them to return home and rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem.

Why would Zoroastrian priests give gifts to baby Jesus?

In order to answer this question, we need to understand a bit about the ancient historical context in which the Gospels were written. In the ancient Greco-Roman world, the Magi were most associated with being highly-educated astrologers who could predict the future. In the mind of someone living in the Roman Empire, it would have made perfect sense that a group of Magi would take note of the appearance of a new, mysterious star in the sky and start consulting their library of scrolls to see what this could possibly mean.

I should point out that the famous “star of Bethlehem” is never described in the Bible as some giant, impossible-to-ignore star that literally guides people across the desert. Rather, all that Matthew says is that the Magi showed up in Jerusalem one day and said, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him.” (Matthew 2:2) This implies that only these court astrologers noticed this phenomena in the sky.

Also, notice how they showed up in Jerusalem? You know, the capital of Judea, where the royal palace was? Of course someone would go to a place like that to look for a king! This also shows that the Magi were not literally following a star; its appearance was simply the inciting event that got their interest. The Jewish priests and rabbis had to be consulted, and it was they who remembered the passage in Micah 5:2 that predicted “But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days.

Only then do the Magi go to Bethlehem to meet Jesus and give their three famous gifts. The Gospel then goes on to say that they were warned in a dream that they should take a different route home, for the wicked Roman puppet ruler at the time, Herod, was planning to have this newborn threat to his power killed. Sure enough, the story concludes with an enraged Herod having all children under the age of two in the town massacred. This, in turn, indicates that Jesus may have been a toddler when the Magi paid Him a visit, rather than a newborn.

To the original readers of Matthew’s Gospel, a mysterious group of foreign astrologers being prompted by the miraculous appearance of a star in the sky to seek the fulfillment of an ancient prophecy would not only have made sense in the cultural context of the time, but could also be seen as the fulfillment of a prophecy as ancient as the Torah itself: “A star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel” (Numbers 24:17)

There is something else that I haven’t mentioned about the way this story would have been understood by its original audience. The ancient Greeks and Romans were actually not fans of the Magi. After all, Persia was their traditional enemy, and they saw the Magi as evil sorcerers. To accuse someone of being a magoi in ancient Greece was a serious accusation. For such people to pay a toddling Jesus a visit to worship Him and deliver gifts would have been incredibly transgressive.

Yet the entire story of Jesus’s birth is transgressive. He was born in a barn to a woman betrothed to a simple laborer, found by a group of ordinary shepherds who were told to seek a child lying in a manger. This is how God chooses to join humanity so that we may be redeemed?

Time and again, the Bible tells of how God doesn’t see things the way humans do. It tells us that the Israelites were slaves in Egypt before Moses led them to freedom. It tells us that David, Israel’s greatest king and founder of a great dynasty, was the scrawny youngest son in a family of ordinary shepherds. Throughout His ministry, Jesus reaches out to help the poor and downtrodden over the objections of the religious elite of the time. To me, the visit of the Magi is in keeping with this ongoing Biblical theme.

Why are the Magi called “Kings”?

This baroque-era painting shows one popular interpretation of the “Three Kings” as rulers of different lands from across the globe.

The idea that the Magi were “kings” is a pretty ancient one, dating back to the late Roman period. The idea was that kings bowing before the young Jesus would have reflected Psalms 72:11, which reads “May all kings fall down before him, all nations serve him!

During the Middle Ages, popular tradition in western Europe gave these figures names and backstories. Melchoir was said to be the shah of Persia and the one who presented the gold. Gaspar was a rajah from India who brought the frankincense. Lastly, Balthasar was said to be a king from either Ethiopia or Arabia who brought the gift of myrrh. I have noticed that this medieval tradition has been resurrected by modern Nativity set manufacturers, probably as a way to match modern customers’ demands for diversity and inclusion in a way that is respectful of Christian heritage.

Another reason the tradition of referring to the Magi as “kings” has stuck around is because of the excellent song “We Three Kings”, a Christmas carol written in 1857 by John H. Hopkins, who was both an Episcopal priest and a musician. He also was well-respected enough that he was asked to give the eulogy at Ulysses S. Grant’s funeral.

In the end, including this odd, gift-giving trio in your Nativity set may not be historically or Biblically accurate, but it certainly has an important place in our holiday traditions. It is also a reminder that not only was Jesus’s birth a great miracle, but that His message is one that is meant for all of us, no matter our background or our position in life. That is something absolutely worthy of remembering.

Merry Christmas, Cat Flaggers!

In memory of my grandmother, Mary Griffith

December 5, 1940-November 29, 2022

What happened to the Puritans?

These days, if you want to criticize someone for being too prudish or too quick to resort to censorship, you might call that person “puritanical”. In a recent video I saw on YouTube about the upcoming coronation of King Charles III, the narrator lamented this ceremony being more grounded and modern and far less of an ostentatious spectacle than previous coronations by saying “The United Kingdom still has a strong streak of Puritanism in its culture.”

If I say the word “Puritan”, I’m sure a certain image appears in your mind: a person dressed in black or very-dark-brown with a funny-shaped and quite tall hat, a buckle on his shoes, and a very strict and stingy demeanor. Everyone knows about the Puritans, who had a huge impact on the history of the English-speaking world in the 17th century. While the famous Mayflower Pilgrims who landed at Plymouth in 1620 were NOT Puritans, many of the later waves of settlers in New England absolutely were. Not only were Puritans instrumental in shaping the future United States, but across the pond in the mother country, they played a key role in the English Civil War. Few religious movements have been so instrumental in shaping both American and British history.

Yet today, the Puritans seem to have completely disappeared. You won’t find any Puritan church in your hometown, you never hear about a Puritan minister speaking at a conference of the National Association of Evangelicals, and nobody answers “Puritan” on surveys about religious affiliation. The only books about Puritans you can find all talk about this religious group in the past tense.

What happened to the Puritan church?

Well, to answer that question, we need to begin by pointing out that the question itself is wrong. There was never a “Puritan church”, because Puritans were never a separate Christian denomination. All Puritans were Anglicans who were baptized members of the Church of England.

See, when King Henry VIII had Parliament declare him to be the head of the Church of England, this was more of a political move than anything else. He would come to introduce some mild reforms, such as having the Bible translated into English and closing all of England’s monasteries, but for the most part, the worship and teachings of the Church of England didn’t change. It wasn’t until two years after his death that a major reform came to Christian worship in England, as Archbishop Thomas Cranmer published the Book of Common Prayer. During the reign of Queen Mary I (1553-1558), all of these religious reforms were repealed and the Church of England was reunited with the Church of Rome. Mary’s sister, Queen Elizabeth I (who reigned from 1558 to 1603), repealed these repeals in order to restore the independence of the Church of England as well as the Book of Common Prayer. In addition, she clearly defined what Anglicanism actually was going to be all about by adopting the 39 Articles of Religion that remain the cornerstone of Anglicanism to this day.

Although Queen Elizabeth’s reforms pushed the English church away from Catholicism and toward the Protestant movement, some of her subjects didn’t think these reforms went far enough. Even under the Book of Common Prayer, the style of worship in England’s churches still closely resembled the style of worship in those churches on the European continent who had remained loyal to the Vatican. On top of this, the 39 Articles defined a doctrine that was half-Protestant and half-Catholic. By this point, many in England had been influenced by the ideas of radical Protestant reformers like John Calvin. These people wanted to “purify” the Church of England of all its Catholic practices and teachings. Hence, why these people were referred to as “Puritans“.

This is why the Mayflower Pilgrims were not Puritans, by the way; Puritans chose to work within the Church of England to advance their religious agenda, while the Pilgrims were Separatists who had broken away to form their own, illegal church.

It should be noted, though, that the Puritans and Separatists didn’t disagree with each other so much on matters of theology, religious practices, or doctrine. The only real difference was in tactics – should one pursue reform within the Church, or determine it to be beyond saving and start over? Puritans chose the former option. This led to quite the religious tension and strife within the Church of England, as the Puritans found themselves opposed by an Anglo-Catholic religious establishment that had the support of monarchs like King Charles I.

The English Civil War, however, gave the Puritans an opportunity that they happily seized. In 1643, as Parliament waged a rebellion against the king, it called an “Assembly of Divines” to meet in Westminster Abbey and advise Parliament on how to reform the Church of England. The Assembly produced the Westminster Confession of Faith that solidified Calvinist theology, along with two catechisms to standardize the teaching of this theology to the English people. They also replaced the Book of Common Prayer with a “Directory for Public Worship” that purged worship in English churches of any elements that were seen as too Catholic, and officially declared that the Church of England would henceforth have a presbyterian structure with elected ministers rather than bishops.

To say these reforms were controversial would be an understatement. No sooner was the monarchy restored under King Charles II in 1660 than the old Anglicanism was put right back in place, its bishops restored to their offices, and an updated edition of the Book of Common Prayer published that is still in use in the Church of England today. This restoration was essentially the death sentence for the Puritan movement, as it made clear that Anglicanism would retain its character as a “middle road” between Catholicism and Protestantism. The final nail in its coffin was hammered in 1689, when Parliament passed the Toleration Act, that allowed Protestants who didn’t want to conform to the Church of England’s rules to legally form “nonconforming churches” as long as they swore an oath of allegiance to the monarch.

Remember how I said that the difference between Puritans and Separatists was that Puritans worked within the Church of England while Separatists formed their own churches? Well, by the late 17th century, all remaining Puritans became Separatists. As early as 1648, the churches in New England adopted the Cambridge Platform that declared each individual congregation in New England would be completely independent and self-governing. With the passage of the Toleration Act, the remaining Puritans back in England would also leave the state-sponsored church.

So, what churches did the Puritans form once they left the Church of England? Well, that really depended. See, while I have been talking about the Puritans as a single movement up to this point, in reality, they had many disagreements with each other. Sure, Puritans agreed that the Church of England needed reform, and they all adopted some variation of Calvinism, but that still left many disagreements. The Westminster Assembly that I mentioned earlier was highly contentious, particularly over the question of church government: some wanted to maintain the church’s hierarchical structure and its bishops, others wanted each congregation to be completely self-governing, and still others wanted to adopt Presbyterianism. Another issue that divided the Puritans was whether infant baptism was acceptable, or if only adult believers should be baptized.

As a result, many different churches today trace their roots to the Puritans. Congregationalists claim this heritage through the aforementioned Cambridge Platform, and many ex-Puritans would found Presbyterian churches. Roger Williams, a renegade Puritan minister in New England who ran afoul of the colony’s leaders due to his belief in separation of church and state, would end up starting the first Baptist church in the future United States. Funnily enough, after the American Revolution, many of the original congregations founded by Puritan settlers a century and a half earlier would end up rejecting the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, and today, many of these congregations are Unitarian Universalist churches.

In once sense, then, Puritanism is extinct. After all, Anglicanism is now a clearly-defined Christian denomination, and it most certainly doesn’t reflect the vision that the Puritans had for it. At the same time, many other Christian denominations have been influenced by the ideas of the Puritans. Many Baptist, Presbyterian, and Congregationalist churches today continue to abide by the Westminster Confession of Faith, and their emphasis on a very personal view of faith was one of the foundations of what would become Evangelicalism. So, in another sense, Puritans aren’t extinct at all, and in fact, can be found everywhere.

Which name is correct, Autumn or Fall?

Fall foliage image by Bobby Mikul

Ah, the turning of the seasons. As the air gets colder and the leaves on the trees start to change color, it’s time to put on a sweater and sip a pumpkin-spice latte while listening to jazz and reading a good book. Plump, orange, decorative pumpkins are everywhere, and the home décor sections of every department store have pulled out their earth tone collections. The sunset starts earlier and earlier with each passing day, and Spirit Halloween is open for business once again. What a wonderful season this truly is!

The only trouble is, what is it supposed to be called?

Ever since I was a little kid learning the four seasons, I have always wondered, why does this season have two names? As a boy, I was taught that this season is called “fall” because the leaves fall from the trees. But just from cultural osmosis through mass media, I also quickly learned that this season is called “autumn” as well, usually when trying to sound slightly fancier.

Indeed, the British will tell you that autumn is the proper name for the season, and they make fun of us Americans calling it fall as a sign of how culturally backwards we are. I have even heard some of my fellow Americans claim that autumn is the “correct” name for the season, and that fall is a slang term.

Is there any truth to this claim? Should we be using autumn instead of fall, or are both terms equally correct? How did this season end up with two names, anyway?

First of all, let me be clear that both terms, autumn and fall, are equally correct, at least in American English. Since we have no central linguistic authority defining what is “correct” and “incorrect” speech (unlike what you will find with some other languages), American dictionaries broadly describe our language as it is actually used in everyday speech. Thus, what our dictionaries consider to be “correct” speech is based off of what they see as the broad cultural consensus as defined by how language is actually used in everyday life. So, you can freely use autumn and fall interchangeably.

That still leaves the question about how we ended up with two names for the season, though. Well, originally there was only one name we English-speakers used for the season, and it was neither of these terms.

Fall harvest image by Petr Kratochvil

In Anglo-Saxon times, when the English language was first starting to become a thing, the term for this time of year in Old English was haerfest. This term was related to words in Old Norse and other Germanic languages having to do with “plucking” and “picking”, as that’s what farmers are doing this time of year. As you’ve probably already guessed, this is the origin of our modern English word “harvest“.

Of course, our language underwent a major change after the Norman Conquest, as an elite of Norman-French nobles came to rule over the Anglo-Saxon population. Many, many Latin and French words entered English during this time. This was the case with the Latin name for this time of year: autumnus. This Latin root gave rise to our English word “autumn” by about 1300.

As the late Middle Ages slowly gave rise to the Renaissance, many poets began crafting fine works of poetry from the vernacular English language. While previous generations looked down on English as a peasant language, with French and Latin as the only languages with literary merit, figures like Geoffrey Chaucer challenged this view by using English to create masterpieces such as the Canterbury Tales. It helped that the Hundred Years’ War between England and France led the English elite to reassess their own culture and start embracing their Englishness, including adopting the English language. By the time of William Shakespeare, English was the language of all social classes in Tudor society.

What does any of this have to do with what we’re talking about? Well, these early English poets were fond of referring to this time of year as “the fall o’ the leaves”. Over time, this term caught on, though gradually people ended up shortening the phrase to just “fall“.

This leaves us with three terms for the season – harvest, autumn, and fall. As English society became more urbanized, harvest came to be more specifically associated with agriculture and was used more as a verb (“to harvest crops”). Over time, the term would fall out of favor.

This meant that by the time English colonists started settling in the New World, the English language already had two interchangeable terms for this season. So why did “fall” come to be seen as an Americanism?

Well, something interesting happened after July 4, 1776. The English that was spoken back in England would continue to evolve, while American English would, in many cases, preserve aspects of the version of English spoken during our Colonial Era. For example, our American accents are much closer to how Sir Isaac Newton, King George III, or Jane Austen would have spoken than the modern British accent – the so-called “Received Pronunciation” of standard British English that sounds so posh to our ears didn’t develop until decades after our independence.

Similarly, over in the UK, autumn became the standard term for the season, and Brits gradually stopped referring to it as fall. We Americans, meanwhile kept using both terms, with a general preference for fall over autumn. By the 19th century, fall was the more widely used term stateside, but because of its association with “those posh British people”, autumn came to be seen as the fancier term by the 20th century. Meanwhile, people in the UK see all these Americans saying “fall” and presume this to be a uniquely American term.

So that’s how we got to where we are today. However, language is always changing, and I’ve heard anecdotally that some people across the pond have started using “fall” as well. Perhaps we haven’t seen the end of the story of the season with multiple names.

Have a happy harvest, everyone!

Image by Merve Baydar