Armed Forces Day

Armed Forces Day is celebrated annually on the third Saturday of May and Armed Forces Week begins on the second Saturday of May and ends on the third Sunday of May. It was this past weekend. I think this is another holiday that has been forgotten or misunderstood by many Americans.

I don’t think many Americans could tell you the difference between Memorial Day, Armed Forces Day, and Veterans Day. They may think first of Memorial Day as the start of summer. Memorial Day honors all military dead. Veteran’s Day honors all those living who served in the military. Armed Forces Day honors all who currently serve in the military.

I was in high school and college in the days of the Vietnam War and the military draft, and the armed forces were not spoken of very highly by most young people. War was not something anyone wanted and many of us questioned why we were in Vietnam. The wars we studied in history from WWII and earlier seemed somehow more justified than Vietnam and Korea.

But Armed Forces Day is celebrated worldwide. In some countries, it is a day to show military force, almost like a threat.

In the United States, it was first observed on May 20, 1950, and had been created under President Harry S. Truman who led the effort to establish a single holiday for citizens to come together and thank military members for their patriotic service. It celebrates the five U.S. military branches – the U.S. Army, U.S. Navy, U.S. Marine Corps, U.S. Air Force, and U.S. Coast Guard.

The first Armed Forces Day was celebrated by parades, open houses, receptions and air shows. I saw no celebrations anywhere near me. The longest continuously running Armed Forces Day Parade in the U.S. is held in Chattanooga and this year marked its 74th parade.

Cinco de Mayo

Cinco de Mayo is a holiday in Mexico, Spanish for “Fifth of May.” This annual celebration held on May 5 has become more popular in the United States than in Mexico and is associated with the celebration of Mexican-American culture.

Cinco de Mayo is sometimes mistaken for Mexico’s Independence Day—the most important national holiday in Mexico—which is celebrated on September 16. May 5 marks Mexico’s victory over the Second French Empire at the Battle of Puebla in 1862. It didn’t end the war but was a morale boost for the Mexicans. In January 1866, Napoleon III announced that he would withdraw French troops from Mexico.

Celebrations began in California, where they have been observed annually since 1863. The day gained nationwide popularity beyond those of Mexican-American heritage in the 1980s due to advertising campaigns by beer, wine, and tequila companies. Cinco de Mayo generates beer sales in America on par with the Super Bowl, but in Mexico, the commemoration of the battle continues to be mostly ceremonial, such as through military parades or battle reenactments. The city of Puebla marks the event with various festivals and reenactments of the battle.

Easter Trivia

Photo by George Dolgikh on

In the past, I have written here about the origins of the Easter holiday and religious Christian connections to the Jewish Passover. Interestingly, it is not until the eighth century that the name “Easter” is introduced, appearing in the writings of Bede, a Northumbrian monk who wrote the Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Before this time, the Latin name had been Pascha, borrowed from the Greek Pascha which itself stems from the Hebrew, Pesach. The Greek Orthodox Church still uses the name Pascha today, but “Easter” has become the preferred English term. In modern parlance, Easter and Passover represent two entirely separate holidays and faith traditions, despite their shared origins.

Easter is a moveable feast determined by the Sunday after first full moon on or after the spring equinox.

Today I am only concerned with the more secular and trivial traditions of Easter, which have both blended with and in many cases overtaken the religious aspects of the holy day.

Photo by Pikture Gallery on

Many people – especially kids – associate Easter with candy, though for holidays it is not the biggest holiday for candy. That is Halloween with Christmas and Valentine’s Day in the top four. Still, about 90 million chocolate bunnies are produced each year. Americans consume about 16 million jellybeans each Easter. Somehow, the most popular Easter candy in America is marshmallow peeps. Americans eat (or at least buy) 600 million peeps during each Easter season. By the way, most Americans bite off the ears of a chocolate bunny first.


Easter eggs are also strongly associated with the holiday (check out my origins post for reasons). The first Easter eggs were dyed red. In the 13th century, the church prohibited eating eggs during Holy Week. The world record largest chocolate Easter egg was made in Tosca, Italy. It weighed a staggering 15,873 pounds, 4.48 ounces and had a circumference of 64 feet, 3.65 inches. Dyeing Easter eggs is a tradition that began in Ukraine.

It’s not all about candy, but a lot of Easter foods are sweet. The traditional baked goods on Good Friday in England are hot cross buns which I do find in stores near me too. In England, a fruitcake called simmel that has marzipan balls is traditionally served at tea time on Easter. It has 11 marzipan balls that represent the Apostles – minus Judas.

The Easter Bunny brings children eggs in the U.S., but in Westphalia, Germany they are brought by a fox. The Easter Bunny began as a hare in Germany. In Switzerland, the cuckoo delivers Easter eggs to kids. The Easter mascot in Australia is Bilby. Easter symbols like rabbits stem from the Anglo-Saxon festival of Eoestre.

Hey, Easter Island is part of which country? Chile

In some countries – including Greece, Mexico and Spain – what is burned during Easter bonfires? Effigies of Judas

Who wrote the holiday classic song “Easter Parade?” Why it’s Jewish composer Irving Berlin, who also wrote “White Christmas.”


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.

Image: CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

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.

Sinter Klaas

The feast of Sinterklaas celebrates the name day of Saint Nicholas on 6 December, and it is celebrated annually with the giving of gifts on St. Nicholas’ Eve the night before in the Netherlands. (And on the morning of Saint Nicholas Day in Belgium.) Will you be putting any candy in a child’s shoe tonight?

Sinterklaas arriving in Groningen, Netherlands

Is Saint Nicholas the early Santa Clauss? Yes and no. Sinter Klaas certainly sounds like a name you could Anglicise as Santa Claus.

I have written before about these legends of Sinterklaas, and Saint Nick or Nicholas, and the mythical Santa Claus, and about Christmas itself in Decembers past. I’ve probably written too much about it.

I grew up with Christmas as a religious holiday and also as the ridiculous secular holiday that starts in November and continues until the new year, I have grown tired of almost all of it. But when I had my children, I fell back into the holiday hole.

I think if I had small children now I would not make Santa Claus anything but a storybook character. For Saint Nicholas, I would emphasize what the legendary figure is thought to have done and try to stay with that spirit of giving in all its forms. I would downplay the onslaught of toys and gifts for oneself and put more emphasis on giving to others. I have made December 6 one of the days that I sit down and make some donations to charities I support.

Santa places his gifts around the Christmas tree and fills stockings hanging above the fireplace. Sinterklaas places the gifts in front of the fireplace, and, instead of stockings, he fills shoes that children placed before the fireplace the night before. In the shoes is only candy. My mother, who was raised in an Austrian household, also did that with us in our early days.

So, Sinterklaas comes first in places like the Netherlands and then comes Christmas Eve and Day. The Dutch separate Sinterklaas and gifts from Christmas which is meant to be more religious and is celebrated just on the Eve and day.

It is understandable why the two holidays merged in some ways over the centuries. After all, the saint was a religious figure and holiday. Sinterklaas is based on the historical figure of Saint Nicholas (270–343). He was not from Holland. He was a Greek bishop of Myra in present-day Turkey. He is depicted as an elderly, stately, serious man with white hair and a long, full beard. He wears a long red cape or chasuble over a traditional white bishop’s alb and a sometimes-red stole, wears a red mitre on his head, and a ruby ring (lots of red), and holds a gold-colored crosier, which is a long ceremonial shepherd’s staff with a fancy curled top.

No reindeer. He traditionally rides a white horse.

Sinterklaas carries a big, red book in which he records whether each child has been good or naughty in the past year. That is one of the elements that stretches a child’s credulity at some point. With Santa, credulity is stretched very far: flying reindeer and sleigh, toys for every child in the world, and the ability to get to every house and get down some chimneys all in one night?

I’m no expert on Sinter Klaas but from what I read there are some Santa-like games with St. Nick too. On the evening of 5 December, parents, family, friends or acquaintances pretend to act on behalf of “Sinterklaas” and try to fool the children into thinking that “Sinterklaas” has really given them presents. The fireplace or living room is decorated with them in a similar way that Christmas Day appears in English-speaking countries. But on 6 December, “Sinterklaas” departs without any ado, and all festivities are over.

Oh, if that was only true in America.

Moon Festival for Autumn

Illustration by Grace Lin
from her book Where the Mountain Meets the Moon

The “Moon Festival,” also known as the “Mid-Autumn Festival,” or “Mooncake Festival,” is the second most important festival in China after the Chinese New Year. Celebrations include worshiping the moon, lighting paper lanterns, and eating mooncakes. The Mid-Autumn Festival is held on the 15th of the 8th lunar month in the Chinese calendar around the autumn equinox, but the date varies in different parts of the world and on different calendars. Chinese people will enjoy a 3-day break from September 10 to 12. Here it will be celebrated by most people on September 10, which is also the September Full Moon. Our Harvest Moon is a similar marking of this time of the seasons.

I will attend one of tea expert Selina Law‘s festival celebrations locally. She shares customs and stories about the holiday and provides samples of different types of tea and mooncake.

The Mid-Autumn Festival originated from the Chinese attention to and worship of celestial phenomena. It evolved from the worship of the Moon in autumn in ancient times when ancient Chinese emperors offered sacrifices to the Moon in autumn to pray for a good harvest in the coming year.

This is a traditional festival celebrated in Chinese culture and similar holidays are celebrated in Japan, Korea, Vietnam, and other countries in East and Southeast Asia.

There are numerous varieties of mooncakes consumed within China and beyond. The type I knew when I was younger is the Cantonese mooncake which my Chinese friend would give me. is the most famous variety. Typically, a Cantonese mooncake is a round pastry with a rich thick filling usually made from red bean paste or lotus seed paste. It has a thin, salty, egg crust. It is cut into small wedges, accompanied by tea.

Some of the other festival traditions are certainly things anyone can participate in this weekend. Traditions include: reuniting with the family over a meal, paying closer attention to the Moon, making and lighting colorful lanterns, giving small gifts, and sometimes drinking a special liquor, such as cassia or Osmanthus wine. I have yet to try that drink though I looked again this week for it, unsuccessfully, in stores.

Thanking the Moon, written and illustrated by the award-winning and prolific author Grace Lin. It would be a good read-aloud book to let children know about the holiday and possibly about another culture. It is the story of a Chinese-American family celebrating the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival. They have a picnic in the moonlight with mooncakes, pomelos (the largest citrus fruit and an ancestor of the grapefruit), cups of tea, and colorful lanterns. Everyone sends thanks and a secret wish up to the Moon. A moonlight picnic sounds like an excellent family (or couples) activity for this weekend.