The Inspirations behind the U.S. Constitution

 

US constitution and flag by wynpnt at goodfreephotos

When I was in elementary school in Ohio back in the 1990’s, schools were first starting to do standardized testing of their students. Teachers had to set aside a couple of days in the school year for all the students in the school to sit down and bubble-in multiple choice answers in a cheap booklet printed on thin, easily-torn paper. The teachers and the school were going to be graded on how well we students performed on this boring, menial test. Therefore, as I sat in the classroom waiting for the Social Studies portion of the test to be passed out, the teacher told us all, “Okay, class, on question 14 when it asks ‘Where did the Founding Fathers get the idea for the Constitution?’, the correct answer is ‘B: The Iroquois Confederacy.’ Yes, I know that isn’t actually the correct answer, and you all know that, too, but that’s the answer the state wants.”

Yes, really, she actually said that.

I remember that specifically because I thought it was incredibly strange. I mean, we had just recently learned in history class that the Founding Fathers drew inspiration from many sources when writing the Constitution. Why was the state government wanting us to say that only one of those inspirations mattered? Looking back on this today, as a full-grown adult, it seems clear to me that someone in either Ohio’s education department or the company that made these standardized tests had a political agenda and was trying to get all the schools to teach to that agenda. I’ve talked on this blog before about how history classes in schools don’t actually teach the whole truth, and this is an example of why.

I’m not sure what happened to fifth-grade history classes in Ohio after I moved to California. Maybe future generations of Ohio fifth-graders grew up learning that the Founding Fathers were just inspired by the Iroquois Confederacy. Unless someone with a different agenda came along and changed the tests. Maybe now they learn that the Founding Fathers were inspired by the ancient Greeks and Romans. In any case, as I said, the actual truth of the matter is that there were many inspirations that they drew from when writing the U.S. Constitution, and today, I thought I would go over some of the main ones. Starting, of course, with:

The Iroquois Confederacy

Iroquois flag image by Himasaram and Zach Harden

Long before Christopher Columbus sailed west into the unknown, the tribes of what is now Upstate New York lived in a constant state of war. Then, three people worked together to convince the five tribes to come together and make peace: Hiawatha, a warrior disillusioned by the constant fighting, Jigonhsasee, a woman known for her hospitality toward guests from any tribe, and a spiritual leader known to history as the Great Peacemaker. This trio managed to get the Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, and Mohawk to join forces in a federation called the Haudenosaunee, governed by a constitution that they called the Great Law of Peace.

In the federal government that they created, political power was based around clan mothers, a reflection of the Iroquois’ matriarchal society. Clan mothers had the power to appoint whomever they wanted to serve as their tribe’s chiefs, and could dismiss them at any time for any reason. One type of chief was the “Sachem”, who represented the clan at the Haudenosaunee Great Council, made up of 50 Sachems from all five tribes who would make decisions by consensus.

The American colonists would have been familiar with the Iroquois Confederacy, partly due to their close proximity, and partly due to the fact that the colonists and Iroquois were partners in the fur trade. In many colonial wars between the English and French colonies, the Iroquois usually sided with the English. Benjamin Franklin, in particular, spent some time among the Iroquois, and was inspired by their successful federation. In the mid-18th century, he called for the British colonies in North America to join forces in a federation of their own, in what he called the “Albany Plan of Union”. He was unsuccessful in convincing the colonies to adopt his plan – they already reported to London, and didn’t need an extra layer of government above them that they would have to obey the laws of and pay taxes to. However, when the colonies rose up against the British, the idea of the colonies joining forces was resurrected, as now they had a reason to stick together as they fought for their independence.

A few specific ideas that made it into the Constitution came from the Iroquois, such as having a Congress that represented all of the states, creating a balance of power between the states and the federal government, and barring any person from holding more than one political office in the U.S. government at a time.

Ancient Athens and Rome

Ancient Rome scene illustration by Edgar S Shumway

Of course, since the Founding Fathers were educated men of European descent, they would have been intimately familiar with the historical roots of Western civilization, namely, ancient Greece and Rome. These city-states developed unique (for the time) political systems that laid the ideological foundations for democracy and republicanism. Indeed, “democracy” is a word with Greek roots meaning “rule by the people”, and “republic” comes from the Latin for “public matters”.

The idea of democracy came from ancient Athens, a Greek city-state that had recently overthrown its king. Initially, after the monarchy was deposed, an oligarchy of the city’s wealthiest families ran things, but then infighting between these families led to factionalism that paralyzed the city’s government and wreaked havoc on the political process. To resolve this, a reformer named Solon advocated for the creation of a new political system that got every male Athenian citizen directly involved in political decision making: democracy. He believed that if every citizen, regardless of class, could vote and have a say in political matters, there would be no more factionalism.

Laughter image from Rawpixel

He thought WHAT?

As a result, the ancient Athenians would pass laws and make important decisions such as going to war or making peace by a vote of all the citizens of Athens. A council known as the “Boule” decided what went before the Athenians for a vote, and a committee known as the “Prytaneis” worked to implement the Athenian citizens’ decisions. Athenian elections to these offices were a bit different than what we are used to – technically, the vote only determined which candidates would be eligible to be picked in a random lottery. This was officially a mechanism to let the gods have a vote, though it also made it much harder to buy an election through corruption.

Many city-states across the ancient Mediterranean would be inspired by the Athenians and experiment with their own political systems. One of the most successful of these was Rome, a city-state that would grow to conquer the entire region and become one of history’s most famous empires. The Roman Republic, like the democracy in Athens, came about after the overthrow of a king. The Senate, the king’s council of advisers, took power for itself. Initially, they intended to keep power in the exclusive hands of the patricians (the Roman nobility), but after several revolts by the plebeians (commoners), a carefully-constructed political system that balanced power between different political groups was established.

The Romans would divide power between the Senate, the people, and the various elected public officials who would follow a traditional career path called the cursus honorum. At the top of the pyramid of public officials were two consuls, who would share the duty of chief executive. There would always be two of them in order to ensure that neither could become too powerful, and they would only serve a one-year term in order to further limit their power. How much can one do in a year, after all? Meanwhile, the plebeians would elect Tribunes of the Plebs, whose job it would be to oversee the Senate and the officials and ensure they didn’t abuse their powers. Most notably, a tribune could veto any government action that they felt threatened the interests of the plebeians. This was important, as all Roman elections, except the elections for the tribunes, were rigged in favor of the wealthy elite.

The idea of a government with no king, where the people have a say in their own government and choose their leaders, and where a careful balance of power that keeps any official from becoming too powerful, was clearly a major influence on the thoughts of the Founding Fathers as they framed the new U.S. government that they were creating.

The very same British that they were rebelling against

Redcoats image by Jerry Saslav

While the Founding Fathers had declared their independence from Great Britain, they did so in large part because they saw the British king and parliament as having violated their rights as Englishmen. There were many parts of the English political tradition that they absolutely weren’t about to reject.

While the Kingdom of England started out as just another feudal, absolute monarchy, during the Middle Ages the nature of the kingdom’s government and the role of the crown evolved. A rebellion against King John forced him to sign the Magna Carta, the first law that explicitly put limits on the king’s power, most notably by requiring him to get the people’s consent to raise taxes. This “consent” eventually took the form of Parliament, a body chosen by the king’s subjects that would meet to examine and decide on the king’s request for money. Over the centuries, Parliament would use this power to win concessions from the crown, forcing the monarch to accept further restrictions on his power or the granting of further rights to the people in return for approving new taxes. This process was very slow and gradual, and it was not always peaceful. In fact, at times it led to out-and-out civil wars. However, it was successful in securing such important concessions as a Bill of Rights and restrictions on the power of the king’s officials to lock people up.

This legal tradition found its way into both the original Constitution itself and the American Bill of Rights that was added to it shortly thereafter. Just as the British Parliament had two houses, the U.S. Congress would have two houses. Just as British laws need the assent of the monarch, American laws would need to be signed by the President. Just as all Englishmen would have the right to challenge the legality of their arrests in court, so, too, would all Americans. Just as a suspected English criminal would be tried by a jury of his peers, so would an American suspect.

The Age of Enlightenment

Perhaps the most important influence of all, though, was the political movement that was captivating the minds of many educated, middle-class Europeans at the time: the Enlightenment. People would gather in coffeehouses and in their caffeine-induced highs, they would apply the notions of science and reason that had powered the discoveries of the Scientific Revolution toward human society. Not content to just accept that the social order was the way it was because God said so or because it had always been that way, they would question and challenge and debate instead. Famous political philosophers like John Locke, Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and the Baron de Montesquieu would write about their ideas as to how human societies could be improved.

Well, the newly-free United States was the perfect place to experiment with putting these ideas into practice. The Founding Fathers were avid readers of the works of Enlightenment philosophers. The Declaration of Independence’s lines about how everyone is entitled to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” is a paraphrasing of some of John Locke’s lines in his Two Treatises of Government. Indeed, the idea that a Declaration of Independence was needed at all came from the “social contract” theory of government – the idea that society agrees to have a government in return for protection from murderers and thieves. This theory, and its name, comes from the works of Rousseau.

It was Montesquieu who first proposed a government with three explicit branches: executive, legislative, and judicial. The influence of his writings is why the Founding Fathers created a President, Congress, and Supreme Court. Similarly, Voltaire’s arguments that people should have freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of religion led directly to the First Amendment.

United States Constitution image from Wikimedia Commons

What the Founding Fathers did with the constitution they wrote was synthesize various ideas and inspirations that were floating around in the late 18th century into a single, experimental document that tried to create their ideal government. In return, what is most fascinating of all is just how much later constitutions around the world were influenced by the American one. Today, most countries around the world have a written constitution that lays out the creation of some form of legislative, executive, and judicial branch as well as a bill of rights that includes freedom of speech, press, and religion and protections for accused criminals.

North Korea image by Conan Mizuta

Now, the degree to which they actually respect those rights… well, it can vary.

This is what was truly, well, revolutionary about the American Revolution. Sure, the ideas it was inspired by had been around, in some cases for a while. Yet it sparked a revolution in the collective mind of the world, showing that, yes, we actually can run a country like this. Successfully. And that, well, it’s pretty inspirational.

HAPPY 4TH OF JULY, EVERYONE!

Cat Flag: Utah Edition

 

I just got back from a wonderful week-long visit to the Beehive State. Yes, that is the official state nickname of Utah – it was chosen to represent the hard-working Mormon pioneers who built the state into a prosperous community out of the desert soil. Indeed, according to the beliefs of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, “Deseret”, the name Brigham Young first proposed for the state, is an ancient name for the honeybee. Congress rejected this name, instead insisting on naming the state after the Ute people who lived there first. Still, one can see bee-related symbols all over the state, including on Utah’s state flag:

I have made multiple trips to Arizona in the past few years, but I had never been to its northern neighbor before. This year, I decided to make a road trip up to Utah to see what I’ve been missing.

Specifically, the part of Utah I visited was southern Utah, the lands just to the north of the Grand Canyon where the geological complex that becomes one of my favorite places on Earth begins. This region is home to numerous national parks that preserve the upper canyons, and I visited three of them: Arches, Canyonlands, and Zion.

 

 

While on my tour of southern Utah, I noticed a few interesting things about this part of the country. One thing I noticed was that there were constant references to “Dixie” everywhere you looked. Businesses in the area often have “Dixie” in their name, the local college is named Dixie State University, and much of the land between the national parks and up in the mountains is part of the Dixie National Forest. It turns out that the southern part of the state is known colloquially as “Utah’s Dixie”.

Why? Well, it is located in the south of Utah, some of the early Mormon settlers in this area came from southern states, and the area was home to many cotton farms. I find that both hilarious and endearing.

Another thing I noticed was that the street names in Utah’s cities all follow an interesting, and consistent, pattern. In town after town, the streets all had names like “100 South”, “1500 East”, “900 North”, and so on. In seemingly every town I visited, most streets would have a numerical designation that was a multiple of 100, followed by a cardinal direction. Now, I’ve been to cities where they had a “First Street” or “Fifth Avenue”, but this was something new. After some research, I discovered that this street-name convention originates with Salt Lake City, where the streets are laid out on a grid originating at Temple Square, where the LDS Church built their headquarters and largest temple. The idea was that the streets emanating away from this focal point would act as grid coordinates – when you tell someone that you are at the corner of 700 South and 400 West, he or she will know you are seven blocks south and five blocks west of Temple Square. Apparently other Utah cities and towns copied this same naming pattern, using their main street or a major local landmark as the origin points of their grids.

What was far more surprising to me, however, was just how diverse of a landscape Utah has. You can drive through the stereotypical hot, dry Southwestern desert, fertile valleys lush with greenery, and snow-covered mountain vistas in a single afternoon. I know because I did exactly that.

Three environments 1

 

Three environments 2

Three environments 3

These three images were all taken on the same day

Sure, I saw many parts of Utah that were stark, rocky deserts with red canyons like the ones I’ve seen in Arizona. On the other hand, I also drove through many miles of farmland and green pastures that wouldn’t look out of place in the Midwest. On top of that, it actually snowed while I was there. As someone who lives in coastal California, I was captivated by the white flakes drifting to the ground, and looked in awe at the mountainsides as I saw them grow even whiter and more brilliant. Utah says that it has the “Greatest snow on Earth”, and while I admit I am no expert on snow by any means, I thought the snow that I saw was absolutely wonderful. For a visit. I imagine scraping my car off and shoveling my driveway would get old real quick.

Still, the three national parks I visited were all definitely within the “rocky red desert” part of the state, which has a wonder and beauty all its own:

I also noticed a pattern in the national parks I visited and the other tourists who were at these parks with me. These parks are clearly geared towards the outdoorsy, adventurous, doesn’t-mind-roughing-it crowd. There were campgrounds and hiking trails a-plenty, especially in Canyonlands, and most people I saw had brought at least a backpack, water bottle, and hiking shoes. I saw plenty of bikes, rock-climbing equipment, tents, RVs, and off-road vehicles. This was especially true at Canyonlands, the park with the fewest services and creature comforts. It had a single, tiny visitor center and outhouses for restrooms. It didn’t seem like the other people I saw at the park minded all that much; they were usually too busy getting their gear out and getting ready to hike the trails.

My favorite of the national parks I visited, though, would have to be Zion. It was far more, for lack of a better word, civilized than Canyonlands was. Not only does it have plenty of creature comforts like actual restrooms, a shuttle that takes you up the canyon, and a very nice lodge, but it also grades its trails so that you know which ones are good for beginners, intermediate hikers, and experts. I really appreciated that about it.

I also appreciated the amazing beauty of the place. The trail I took went up the Temple of Sinawava, the part of Zion Canyon where it first widens up around the Virgin River. It has some amazing sights, including the Weeping Cliffs, so-called because water from snow-melt seeps through the rock itself and runs down into the river.

The presence of the river in Zion really makes a difference with the wildlife that is present there. It has become an oasis and refuge in the Utah desert. According to the park’s museum, 70% of all plant species in Utah can be found only in that canyon! It is also home to 289 species of birds, 28 species of reptiles, and 79 species of mammals. The river itself is also home to 7 species of fish.

As you can tell, Zion was my favorite of the national parks that I visited during my trip, and I fully intend to go back there someday and explore even more of it. I still think that northern Arizona is my favorite travel destination, but Utah is now a very close second. This likely won’t be the last time you see me blogging about this wonderful state!

Why are so many Companies Moving to Ireland?

 

Galway Castle in Connacht, Ireland

Happy St. Patrick’s Day, everyone! I have talked about Irish history many times here on Cat Flag, but this year, I wanted to talk about something that is happening RIGHT NOW in the good ol’ Emerald Isle.

Right now, the largest medical device manufacturing company in the world is based in Éire. Dublin-based Medtronic makes everything from pacemakers to insulin pumps to surgical equipment. What a success story for a company that started as a single repair shop in 1949 in… Minnesota??

Another major manufacturing firm based in Dublin is Ingersoll-Rand, makers of heavy machinery for various industries. This company has grown to become a global superpower thanks to the luck of the Irish. Just kidding! Actually, shareholders of the already-huge American company voted to relocate their headquarters to Ireland in 2009.

For the past few years, many American companies have decided to pack their bags and move over the sea to the land of leprechauns and shamrocks. The list includes auto parts maker Johnson Controls, electric power equipment maker Eaton, pharmaceutical firm Perrigo, computer storage firm Seagate Technology, and consulting firm Accenture. Even those companies that aren’t willing to make such a huge commitment – learning Irish is hard, after all – will still choose Ireland as the base of their European operations. The largest company in the country is Apple Ireland, and the list of the largest firms in Ireland reads like a who’s who of major global enterprises: Google, Facebook, and Microsoft are all in the top 10.

So, why? What has got all these companies so interested in Ireland? Do they just like the taste of Guinness that much? Do they really believe the Irish are that lucky? Actually, it’s something a bit more practical…

TAXES

See, Ireland is the world’s largest tax haven.

Oh, wait, no, sorry. The Irish government insists it is NOT a tax haven. See, because most people see tax havens as a bad thing, a sneaky way for greedy companies to avoid paying their fair share. No, Ireland couldn’t possibly be a tax haven, it’s just a country that has decided to implement a tax scheme that benefits major multinational businesses in order to attract investments and jobs. Totally different thing.

Here in the United States, corporations pay federal income tax at a rate of 21%, plus whatever state taxes are charged in the states where they are based and do business. In Ireland, the corporate tax rate is only 12.5%, one of the world’s lowest. In addition, Ireland allows many companies to pay even less tax for certain kinds of business.

Let’s say you are a business that needs lots of patents, like a technology, manufacturing, or pharmaceutical firm. Any income you make from Irish patents you own is taxed at 6.25%. To Ireland, this encourages a robust research and development sector; to big American firms, it means they have an incentive to get lots of Irish patents.

It gets even better for multinational businesses, though. See, the United States only taxes foreign businesses on income that they make in the United States, thus for large companies that operate globally, becoming a foreign business by having your headquarters outside the United States is a very attractive option. Meanwhile, Ireland taxes income made outside Ireland differently than income made in Ireland, thanks to a series of tax treaties Ireland has concluded with many countries. This means some companies, like Apple, have made headlines for being able to get away with paying, in effect, only 4% in total on taxes. Indeed, headlines like this are one of the major reasons that the Trump administration and Congress thoroughly reformed U.S. tax law in 2017, to help close these legal loopholes. Ireland, on the other hand, gets 80% of its corporate tax income from multinational businesses, so it doesn’t exactly have an incentive to discourage these practices.

Besides, even with the United States now clamping down on companies that try to play fast and loose with their taxes, the number of businesses relocating to Ireland is about to go up, not down, thanks to one simple word…

BREXIT

The European Union is a topic I have covered many times here on Cat Flag before. It is a unique hybrid of international organization and federal government that 28 countries are a part of. However, that number is soon to become 27, as the United Kingdom is in the process of leaving the bloc. This is making many British companies think they would be better off taking a hop across the Irish sea.

Why? Well, big multinational businesses LOVE the European Union. They absolutely love it to pieces, and are one of the major forces behind its continued existence, growth in power, and expansion in spite of local opposition in many countries.

See, doing business around the world is very complicated. You have to comply with every local law in every country you operate in, pay taxes in each of these countries, and enforce your intellectual property rights in accordance with different standards in each country. The European Union, however, has harmonized the laws on the European continent, as EU law in things like trade, transportation, environmental and consumer safety regulations, intellectual property, and more takes precedence over the separate national laws. This is in much the same way that U.S. federal law trumps state law. Not only that, but within the EU there is a “single market” where goods and people can travel freely across the continent, making it much cheaper and faster to do business than having to pay tariffs and wait to check through customs at every border.

Companies in the United Kingdom made good use of these advantages, using London’s status as a global financial capital to expand across Europe with ease. With Brexit looming, though, British firms are facing being treated by the EU as foreign companies, subject to all the tariffs, trade restrictions, and regulations attached with that status.

But, wait, what’s this? An island that is right next door, that is staying in the EU, speaks English, and has really low taxes? How could a British company refuse? Already, 21 British companies in the financial services industry have plans to move to the Emerald Isle. These include Barclays and, ironically enough, Lloyd’s of London.

For Ireland, this transformation is bound to have a substantial impact on their economy and society. Once a nation known for famine and millions fleeing the island to settle across the world, in the very near future we may well think of Ireland as an economic powerhouse to which people around the world flock in search of opportunity. How the Irish people themselves respond to these changes is something that remains to be seen.

For now, though, I’d just like to wish you all a Happy St. Patrick’s Day! Sláinte!

Presidents’ Day: The Holiday that Doesn’t Exist

This weekend is a three-day weekend here in the good ol’ U.S. of A. The third Monday of February is Presidents’ Day, a day where we honor the history and legacy of our nation’s leaders by, apparently, holding big sales at all the major retail stores and car dealerships. It’s a day off of work for government employees and bankers, and a day off of school for children nationwide. This is the weekend where the Daytona 500 is held, and various historical societies will hold reenactments to educate Americans about our nation’s history.

Except Presidents Day doesn’t technically exist.

The official, legal name of the federal holiday is Washington’s Birthday. It is a holiday intended to honor George Washington and his role as father of our country. So, where did this President’s Day business come from?

Let’s start at the beginning. When George Washington was born, his birth date was recorded in colonial Virginia’s records as February 11, 1731. However, at that time Great Britain and its overseas colonies were all still using the Julian calendar, the ancient Roman calendar devised by Julius Caesar that had been phased out in most of western Europe in favor of the more accurate Gregorian calendar we use today. As I’ve mentioned on my blog before, the Gregorian calendar was adopted by Pope Gregory XIII for use by Roman Catholics, and many non-Catholic countries, such as Britain, were reluctant to adopt it. In 1752, however, the British decided to make the switch, and their colonies soon followed suit. At the time, it was common practice for people to “adjust” their birthdays to match the new calendar. For this reason, George Washington’s birthday was now February 22, 1732.

Washington was a modest man who really didn’t like making a big fuss about his birthday, and usually spent it the same way he would spend any other day. However, he couldn’t escape the enthusiasm of his countrymen. During the War of Independence, the Continental Army’s band would play music for him outside his quarters. Once he became president, big parties were thrown in his honor all across the nation. After his death, the day remained a popular holiday among Americans, but it only became an official federal holiday – meaning it would be a legal day off for workers and students – in 1879.

Posters like these were used to inform people that businesses would be closed on the day

Of course, this was after the presidency and death of that OTHER great American leader we all know and love:

Abraham Lincoln’s legacy as the man who led America through the Civil War, freed the slaves, and became the first U.S. president to be assassinated led to many wanting to honor his memory with an official holiday. The city of Buffalo, New York, held a celebration on his birthday in 1873, and one of the city’s prominent residents, Julius Francis, lobbied Congress to make Lincoln’s Birthday a federal holiday. Unfortunately for Francis, Congress never did, perhaps in part because of the bitter feelings felt in a certain collection of states that had just been brought back into the Union. *Ahem.*

Still, many states decided to go ahead and make Lincoln’s Birthday an official state holiday, meaning that within their state it would be a day off of work and school for festivities honoring Honest Abe and his legacy. To this day, the anniversary of Lincoln’s birth is marked by ceremonies at his birthplace and at the Lincoln Memorial.

Just one problem. Lincoln was also born in February. His birthday was February 12, 1809. This means that Lincoln and Washington have birthdays that are only 10 days apart.

This came to be an issue in the 1960s, as Congress began trying to reorganize American federal holidays to create fewer disruptions to business and commerce. In 1968, the Uniform Monday Holiday Act was adopted, moving several national holidays, including Washington’s Birthday, so that they always fall on a Monday. It was reasoned that creating the “three-day weekend” as a standard for American holidays would benefit businesses and workers and reduce the number of awkward workweeks that are split in two by a holiday falling mid-week.

This desire to reduce disruptions to the workweek also motivated most of those states that had made Lincoln’s Birthday an official state holiday to combine it with Washington’s Birthday. Otherwise, these states would end up with two holidays, back to back, in the same month. So it was that states like Colorado, Indiana, Montana, Minnesota, Ohio and Utah ended up adopting a merged holiday, naming it something like “Washington-Lincoln Day” or “Lincoln’s and Washington’s Birthday”.

However, these names weren’t very snappy. Many businesses in the retail industry quickly realized that this would be a good time of the year to push their February sales, but they wanted a catchy name that people would immediately recognize. Since the day honored two famous U.S. presidents, they decided to go with “Presidents Day”. Their advertising popularized this name, and it quickly became the name most Americans used for the holiday, and gradually, most states adopted this name for it as well.

There was an interesting consequence, though, to having this name being one that was popularized informally. Have you noticed that I have been inconsistent throughout this blog post about how I punctuate Presidents’ Day? This is deliberate, and it’s because there is no consistent punctuation for President’s Day. Different states will place the apostrophe before or after the “s”, or drop it altogether. Arizona makes things even more complicated, officially calling it “Lincoln/Washington/Presidents’ Day”, thus defeating the whole point of adopting the shorter, easier “Presidents’ Day” name.

Inconsistency between the states making things more complicated is one of the defining characteristics of this holiday. Today, the vast majority of the states honor Presidents Day, by whatever name, as a way to combine the birthdays of Lincoln and Washington into a single holiday. However, six states still honor Lincoln’s Birthday as a separate holiday, accepting that they will have two holidays in quick succession: Connecticut, Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, New York, and my home state of California.

Meanwhile, some southern states that sided with the Confederacy during the Civil War have gone the exact opposite route, refusing to honor Lincoln with a holiday. Virginia simply has George Washington Day, and Louisiana has Washington’s Birthday. Oddly enough, Massachusetts, a Union state, also only honors George Washington’s birthday, though this may in part be because the state has a separate “Presidents Day” held on May 29 to honor the many U.S. presidents that were born in the state.

Alabama and Arkansas, however, take it one step further. They are so opposed to honoring Lincoln that they actually decided to honor someone else alongside Washington on the third Monday of February. In Alabama, they have “George Washington/Thomas Jefferson Birthday” as their celebration, even though Jefferson was born in April. Then again, this is the same state that decided it would be a good idea to designate the third Monday of January as “Robert E. Lee/Martin Luther King Jr. Birthday”, so I guess rational consistency in their holidays is just a bit too much to ask of Alabama’s politicians.

Arkansas, on the other hand, decided to name the third Monday of February “George Washington and Daisy Gatson Bates Day”. Daisy Gatson Bates was an African-American journalist, newspaper owner, and civil rights activist whose Arkansas State Press reported on the controversies surrounding the racial integration of schools in Little Rock in 1957.

Who would have guessed that something so seemingly simple as a holiday would turn out to be so darn complicated? Well, I suppose whatever holiday you happen to be celebrating this weekend, I certainly hope you have a good one.

Saturnalia – The prequel to Christmas

It’s that festive time of year again! Did you know that Christmas is my favorite holiday? I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned it before.

I’m joking, of course, but in some of my past blog posts about the history of Christmas I have made several references to Saturnalia, a pagan holiday celebrated by the ancient Romans in December prior to the conversion of the Roman Empire to Christianity. This year, I wanted to take a closer look at this ancient festival, and compare it to our modern holiday. Christmas may have borrowed many elements from the Romans, but the two holidays are not the same.

So, what was Saturnalia?

The ancient Romans had many gods and goddesses, and one of the most important in their pantheon was Saturn.

This guy.

He was the god of time, the god of rebirth, the god of wealth, the god of agriculture, and the god of liberty. His temple stood at the western end of the Roman Forum, and was used to store Rome’s vaults of gold and silver. The Romans conflated him with the Greek god Cronus, claiming he fled to Italy when Jupiter/Zeus overthrew him, and became the founder-ancestor of the Latin-speaking people in a prosperous “Golden Age”. His statue, we are told by ancient Roman sources, was hollow, and filled with olive oil. It also had a wool cloth wrapped around his feet that only came off during Saturnalia.

The holiday started on December 17 and lasted seven days. It made sense to celebrate the god of agriculture at this time, as it was at the end of the Italian sowing season and fell on the winter solstice, marking the transition of the seasons. However, the festival itself actually emphasized Saturn’s role as a symbol of liberty, as during the festival the traditional Roman social conventions and structures were deliberately broken down, and all slaves were “freed” for the week. Indeed, it was not uncommon for Roman slaveowners to pretend to be slaves and pretend their slaves were their “masters”. It was also during Saturnalia that restrictions on the freedom of speech in Rome were lifted and grievances people had could be aired.

How was Saturnalia celebrated?

First of all, everyone wore the Pileus, a hat that was traditionally worn by newly-freed slaves.

Y’know, if you colored it red and put a white ball at the top…

All businesses, schools, and courts were closed, and everyone participated in feasting, singing, drinking lots of wine, and partying. A “King of Saturnalia” was chosen, whose job it would be to make mischief and play pranks on everyone. Usually this person would be chosen at random when he found a coin hidden in a pastry. The whole city of Rome took on an atmosphere of chaotic revelry, not unlike our modern Mardi Gras celebrations.

Gambling was a big part of the celebration, with dice games being especially popular. And, of course, there were the gladiatorial games and public animal sacrifices made at the Temple of Saturn in honor of the pagan god.

Wait… what does any of this have to do with Christmas?

Well, for starters, Romans would hang wreaths and put out other greenery as decorations in their homes. Candles were also common, as a symbol of the “return of the light” after the solstice. Also, just as with our “Merry Christmas”, Romans had a special greeting for the festival: “Io, Saturnalia!”

The dead giveaway that Christmas celebrations borrowed some influences from Saturnalia, though, is in our practice of gift-giving. This was a HUGE part of Saturnalia – you were expected to give a gift to all of your family members, all of your friends and co-workers, and even passers-by on the street. Not only that, but giving someone a gift meant that person now had to give you a gift back, and Saturn help him if he gave you a gift of lesser value than yours!

Of course, with such high expectations, there were some “standard” gifts you could give to those people that you didn’t know what to get for them. Terracotta figurines were very common, as were small bags of special “Saturnalia nuts”.

Then there were a sort of Christmas-card-like tradition of writing special notes to people that you were close to. These notes were usually in the form of a poem, and would have a customized message for the recipient. Though, I imagine if the printing press had been invented, pre-made Saturnalia cards would probably have been popular.

Obviously, Saturnalia’s influence on our modern Christmas celebrations are very indirect. Christmas is a Christian holiday celebrating the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, while Saturnalia was a pagan holiday that was banned along with all other remnants of the ancient pagan religion in the 4th Century AD. However, almost all historians accept that the fact Christmas falls at roughly the same time of the year as Saturnalia and borrows a few of its traditions was a conscious attempt to help pagans who converted to Christianity ease into the transition.

Though, not too much. I don’t think many people associate Christmas with gambling or gladiatorial games, after all.

However you celebrate Christmas, I wish you a very Merry one this year!