As the year 1890 was ending, a massacre at Wounded Knee, South Dakota occurred. It happened despite a treaty signed two decades before in which the United States government guaranteed local tribes rights to their sacred land around the Black Hills. In the 1870s, gold was discovered in the Black Hills, so the whites wanted the land again and the treaty was broken.
I was assigned to read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee for a college history course and the book revealed to me my ignorance of American Indian history. What a sad and terrible history it is.
People from the Sioux tribe were forced onto a reservation, with a promise of more food and supplies, which never came. Then in 1889, a native prophet named Wovoka from the Paiute tribe in Nevada had a vision of a ceremony that would renew the earth, return the buffalo, and cause the white men to leave and return the land that belonged to the Indians. This ceremony was called the Ghost Dance. People traveled across the plains to hear Wovoka speak, including emissaries from the Sioux tribe, and they brought back his teachings.
The Ghost Dance, performed in special brightly colored shirts, spread through the villages on the Sioux reservation, and it scared the white Indian agents. They considered the ceremony a battle cry, dangerous and antagonistic. One of the agents wired Washington to say that he was afraid and wanted to arrest the leaders.
He was given permission to arrest Chief Sitting Bull, who was killed in the attempt. The next on the wanted list was Sitting Bull’s half-brother, Chief Big Foot. Some members of Sitting Bull’s tribe went to warn Big Foot, and when he found out what had happened, he decided to lead them along with the rest of his people to Pine Ridge Reservation for protection.
It was winter, 40 degrees below zero, and he contracted pneumonia on the way. Big Foot and the group were flying a white flag, and he was a peaceful man. He was one of the leaders who had actually renounced the Ghost Dance but the Army didn’t make distinctions. They intercepted Big Foot’s band and ordered them into the camp on the banks of the Wounded Knee Creek. Big Foot went peacefully.
The next morning federal soldiers began confiscating their weapons, and a scuffle broke out between a soldier and an Indian. The federal soldiers opened fire, killing almost 300 men, women, and children, including Big Foot.
Even though it was a very one-sided “battle”, the massacre at Wounded Knee is considered the end of the Indian Wars. That blanket term refers to the fighting between the Native Americans and the federal government which lasted 350 years.
I wrote earlier about one of the men wounded but not killed during the massacre. That was the medicine man, Black Elk. His book Black Elk Speaks was another book I read in college after finishing my assigned reading. Both books were revelatory both in the history and my own spirituality and in forming a philosophy for my own life’s path.
Black Elk said about the massacre: “I did not know then how much was ended. When I look back now from this high hill of my old age, I can still see the butchered women and children lying heaped and scattered all along the crooked gulch as plain as when I saw them with eyes still young. And I can see that something else died there in the bloody mud, and was buried in the blizzard. A people’s dream died there. It was a beautiful dream.”
From my own high hill of old age, I also see dreams that died there, and in too many other places around the Earth.
Though Christmas is a Christian holiday (holy day), there is so much secular Christmas that surrounds us from mid-Novemer until the New Year that the religious aspects are often lost.
Did you know that there is no mention of December 25th anywhere in the Bible? There is no mention of when Jesus was born at all.
There was much debate amongst early Christians and it wasn’t until the fourth century AD in the Roman Empire that Jesus’ birthday was celebrated on December 25th. The most popular theory as to why this date was settled upon is that it was borrowed from pagan traditions that already occurred on that day.
Because of those pagan festival roots, Christmas was not accepted by the religious quickly. It might surprise you to know that from 1659 to 1681, it was illegal to celebrate Christmas in Boston.
Many of the popular Christmas traditions today found their roots in Saturnalia. Saturnalia was the pagan Roman winter solstice festival and honoring of the god Saturn. Branches from evergreen trees were used during winter solstice as a reminder of the green plants that would grow in spring when the Sun gods grew stronger. These evergreen branches became the foundation of the Christmas tree, so it has no religious connection to Jesus. Germans are thought to be the first to bring “Christmas trees” into their homes during the holidays and decorate them with cookies and lights.
Other purely secular aspects connected to this time include:
St. Nicholas, a Christian bishop living in the fourth century A.D., gave away most of his inherited wealth to the needy and became the protector of children. (Sint-Nicolaas in Dutch or Sinter Klaas.) He evolved into Santa Claus – although the modern image of Santa owes a lot to advertising, such as those by Coca-Cola.
The idea that Santa Claus delivers presents comes from Holland’s celebration of St. Nicholas’ feast day. Children would leave shoes out the night before and, in the morning, would find little gifts that St. Nicholas would leave them. I emphasize “little” gifts.
The image of Santa flying in a sleigh seems to have started in 1819. It was the creation of author Washington Irving – the same author who created the Headless Horseman.
Santa’s Rudolph the reindeer was conceived by the department store Montgomery Ward as a marketing idea to get kids to buy holiday coloring books. They didn’t give him a red nose because that was a sign of chronic alcoholism and the company didn’t want that association. A poem introduced us to the other eight reindeer. In “A Visit From St. Nicholas.” Duner and Blixem became Donner and Blitzen, the names coming from German words for thunder and lightning.
“Jingle Bells” was originally written to be a Thanksgiving song. Nothing Christmas about it. It is just about sleighing with the first days of the snow season.
My mother got angry when people abbreviated Christmas as Xmas because she said they were “taking Christ out of Christmas.” I didn’t learn until a college religion course that the “X” comes from the Greek letter “chi” which happens to be the first letter of the Greek word for Christ (Χριστός), and Greek was the original language of the New Testament. The word was simply created as an abbreviation and was first used in the mid-1500s. I told my mother that, but she never believed me or changed her mind about it.
To me, Xmas has come to represent everything about this day that has nothing to do with the religious meaning of the holiday. All the gifts, wrapping paper, commercials, movies, and decorations all over stores and towns tend to depress me. I don’t object to all of the secular aspects of this season. If it means you donate food and money to charities, help those less fortunate, and act nicer to people around you, I am all for it.
I have a full week of posts coming this week. There are celestial events, holidays and holy days, but to start the work week (unless you are already doing the holiday thing), what is there to remember about December 19? It is 353rd day of the year (354th in leap years) in the Gregorian calendar and 12 days remain until the end of the year.
1732 – Benjamin Franklin began publishing “Poor Richard’s Almanac.”
1777 – General George Washington led his army of about 11,000 men to Valley Forge, PA, to camp for a very difficult winter.
1843 – Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” was first published in England. That’s about the only holiday season thing I found, though in Eastern Christian countries using the old church Calendar, this is the feast day of Saint Nicholas of Myra.
1973 – Johnny Carson started a fake toilet-paper scare on the Tonight Show. The real one would occur with the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.
1997 – Titanic opened in American movie theaters.
1998 – U.S. President Bill Clinton was impeached on two charges of perjury and obstruction of justice by the U.S. House of Representatives.
1998 – A four-day bombing of Iraq by British and American forces ended.
On December 4, 1872, the ship Mary Celeste was found floating, unmanned, and abandoned, in the Atlantic Ocean between the Azores and the coast of Portugal. She was an American brigantine merchant ship, and she’d been at sea for about a month. When she was found, she was fully stocked with six months’ worth of food and supplies, she was completely seaworthy, and the weather was calm. She was flying no distress signal, and there were no signs of violence or mutiny, but all of her passengers and crew had vanished without a trace.
Concerning the Mary Celeste, what we know is that it was a brigantine merchant ship that had been at sea for about a month leaving New York City for Genoa. When found, her passengers and crew were gone, but the ship’s lifeboat was gone which leads to the conclusion that they had abandoned the ship. The ship’s papers, navigation equipment, and two pumps were also missing. But their personal possessions and valuables were left, so they must have left in a hurry.
The ship’s logbook remained. The day before they reached the Azores, they changed course and headed north of Santa Maria Island. The night before the last entry in the ship’s log, they faced rough seas and winds of more than 35 knots. Were they seeking temporary safety? In a small lifeboat?
From 1872 through now, theories, myths, and false histories have been put forward. Sea monsters, alien abduction, storm, waterspout, tsunami, piracy, mutiny?
Sherlock Holmes’ creator, Arthur Conan Doyle, wrote a story called “J. Habakuk Jephson’s Statement,” based on the mystery. He spelled the ship’s name as Marie Celeste mistakenly but the mistake got traction and is sometimes attached to some of the stories about the ship.
We still don’t have a definitive answer to this mystery of a “ghost ship,” which makes it more interesting.
An 1861 painting of Mary Celeste (named Amazon at the time) Link
When I was in elementary school it was the late 1950s and 1960s. The threat of a nuclear war with Russia was always in the news. We had civil defense drills in school. What I remember was that we would have to get under our desks and tuck our heads between our legs. Duck and cover. I kind of enjoyed them because it was a break from the school day.
In 1962, the Cuban Missile Crisis was a 35-day confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union made it all seem very real and close at hand. The U.S.had Jupiter ballistic missiles in Italy and Turkey and there had been the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion in Cuba in 1961. The Soviets feared that Cuba was leaning towards China, Soviet First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev agreed to Cuba’s request to place nuclear missiles on the island to deter a future invasion. Khrushchev and Cuban Prime Minister Fidel Castro had agreed in July 1962 to the construction of a number of missile launch facilities in Cuba. It was the U.S. versus the Soviet Union, the two nuclear powers, but it really seemed to be President Kennedy against Khrushchev.
I was only nine years old but it was in the newspapers and on TV and I heard my parents and their friends talk about the threat of war. My father had been in the Navy in WWII but I don’t recall my parents’ ideas about what was happening. I do know that there was a portrait of JFK on a wall in our home right next to Pope John XXIII.
My grasp of the enormity of this crisis must have been weak but when we were hiding under those desks in fourth grade I would look at the wall of windows and think if a bomb hit nearby New York City we would have no chance of surviving.
Searching online for some of what was being told to Americans in those years, I found one booklet that listed what your chances are if an atomic bomb hits near you.
“If a modern A-bomb exploded without warning in the air over your hometown tonight, your calculated chances of living through the raid would run something like this: Should you happen to be one of the unlucky people right under the bomb, there is practically no hope of living through it. In fact, anywhere within one-half mile of the center of the explosion, your chances of escaping are about 1 out of 10.
On the other hand, and this is the important point, from one-half to 1 mile away, you have a 50-50 chance. From 1 to 1.5 miles out, the odds that you will be killed are only 15 in 100. And at points from 1.5 to 2 miles away, deaths drop all the way down to only 2 or 3 out of each 100. Beyond 2 miles, the explosion will cause practically no deaths at all.”
That last estimate seems foolishly optimistic for us in New Jersey, but after reading further you come to the second reality – radiation. Though the booklet is optimistic about this too, we know now that was an enormous lie.
“Naturally, your chances of being injured are far greater than your chances of being killed. But even injury by radioactivity does not mean that you will be left a cripple, or doomed to die an early death. Your chances of making a complete recovery are much the same as for everyday accidents. These estimates hold good for modern atomic bombs exploded without warning.”
“Any cover is better than none when the fallout rains down. Where the fallout falls depends on where the bomb hits and which way high-altitude winds blow.” – from a story in the December 1961 issue of Popular Science. Under a culvert or in a ditch somehow covered by a car? Is there a cave near your house? You may as well stand on that bridge or sit in the car.
A high school kid on my block had a poster that said, “In the event of an atomic attack, put your head between your legs and kiss your ass goodbye.”
I decided on two things from these drills and the news. First, I was not going to die in a classroom. If the sirens sounded for an attack, I was leaving my classroom and running home. If I was going to die, I would die with my family.
Second, I wanted a bomb shelter (AKA fallout shelter) in our basement. We already had a big storehouse of canned goods down there. That was a good start. My father was very handy. he could definitely build one.
I remember getting a brochure from the library about how to build a shelter. I brought it home. I showed my parents. I went into our basement and drew plans. Cinder block walls to make a room within our poured concrete basement. A way to get safe air and ventilation. How much food and water we would need? How long would we need to stay there? Books to read. Candles and lanterns and batteries.
I don’t think my parents took my planning seriously. The Cuban crisis was over after a month, though the threats from the Russians remained. There was never any movement to actually build our shelter.
In my mind, the space could serve as a shelter even if there was no attack. The place I had decided could be our shelter has three concrete walls, one small window, and an empty doorframe. It had once been used as a coal bin to feed an old furnace. I cleaned it out. I painted it with leftover paint mixed together so that it became uniformly light brown. I fixed the window so it opened and made a crude but effective screen for it. I set up a table rescued from someone’s trash and made shelves from scrap wood. I cut down a nice wooden door that someone was discarding and hung it. I had a room of my own.
I was in a science phase and I had gotten a chemistry set for Christmas which I supplemented with things from a hobby shop. It was my lab. I was also into building car models and it was my workshop. The walls were decorated with magazine photos from Hot Rod, Motor Trend, and Popular Science.
I spent many hours in that place. It was cool in summer, and cold in winter. Our dog slept downstairs and I made a bed frame for him filled with a carpet and blanket that sat between my door and the furnace which warmed the area.
In our town and many others, buildings were designated as official fallout shelters. They were marked with a yellow and black sign. In July 1961, President Kennedy gave a speech outlining a new program. “Tomorrow I am requesting of the Congress new funds … to identify and mark space in existing structures — public and private — that could be used as fallout shelters in case of attack.” The Office of Civil Defense — the precursor to FEMA — began creating them.
The buildings selected had a protection factor of at least 40 (meaning you would receive 1/40th the radiation inside the building than you would outside, unprotected) Basements in buildings like schools, and the middle floors of taller buildings were suitable and they needed room for at least 50 people with 10 square feet of space per person.
In 1962, 400,000 aluminum outdoor signs and one million steel signs for indoors were contracted for production. I still see those signs on a few buildings. Some buildings were eventually demolished, most of the signs were removed and I bet a few signs were scavenged (stolen) by collectors. Maybe some places became shelters used after natural disasters.
Are we safe now from “the bomb”? (We called it an atomic bomb in the 1950s and early 1960s but it eventually became a nuclear weapon or nuke.) As the war in Ukraine continues far longer than most people expected, the idea that Russia might use a nuclear weapon keeps being mentioned.
On this date, November 19, in 1863, Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
I heard or read the speech several times in school, but I don’t think its importance or powerful brevity made a strong impression on me then. Now considered one of the greatest speeches in American history, it is often taught in public speaking courses. Students are surprised at its brevity, which is part of its power.
As an adult, I visited the cemetery and battlefield. Though it is now a National Park Service tourist attraction with buildings, parking lots, and a gift shop, walking along the battlefield still had a kind of hard-to-describe power.
November 19 was four and a half months after the battle, and it was a foggy, cold morning. Lincoln arrived at about 10 a.m. Around noon, the sun came out as the crowds gathered on a hill overlooking the battlefield. A military band played, and a local preacher offered a long prayer. Surprisingly, Lincoln was not considered to be the headlining orator. That was Edward Everett who spoke for more than two hours and described the Battle of Gettysburg in great detail. When Everett finished, Lincoln spoke.
“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.“
Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address ran for just over two minutes. It is less than 300 words. Ten long sentences. It was so brief, that many of the 15,000 people that attended the ceremony didn’t even realize that the president had spoken.
The next day, Everett told Lincoln, “I wish that I could flatter myself that I had come as near to the central idea of the occasion in two hours as you did in two minutes.”
On the train trip from Washington, D.C. to Gettysburg on November 18, Lincoln remarked to a member of his cabinet that he felt weak. Several people who accompanied the President reported that he had been dizzy the next morning and that his face had “a ghastly color” and that he was “sad, mournful, almost haggard.” After the speech, when Lincoln boarded the 6:30pm train to return to Washington, D.C., he was feverish and weak with a severe headache, and when he returned to the White House, he was diagnosed with a mild case of smallpox.
There are several versions of the speech because five different manuscript copies exist and they vary slightly. Lincoln gave copies to both of his private secretaries, and the other three versions were re-written by the president after he made the speech. The Bliss Copy, named for Colonel Alexander Bliss, is the only copy that was signed and dated by Lincoln, and it’s generally accepted as the official version for that reason.
The last time I felt the power of his address was when I read it as it is inscribed on the Lincoln Memorial on a trip to Washington, DC in November of 2016. It was just after the election of President Trump. I, and many Americans, were wondering how differently Lincoln’s words would be interpreted by different groups of people today.
Link to an NPS Virtual Tour of Gettysburg National Military Park