History podcasts

Well, we have a bonus post today. I usually post every 10 days, but I thought I’d squeeze a last one in before the end of the summer holidays.

I’m not a GCSE teacher so I can’t vouch for the quality of these podcasts, but you may find them useful.

The GCSE History Revision Podcast

The British History Podcast – this one isn’t a GCSE revision one, but it’s informative and entertaining for anyone with an interest in history. Warning: it contains explicit language, not all of which is bleeped out.

15 Minute History – this one isn’t GCSE specific either, but I enjoy listening to it. It sometimes has more of an American slant but they cover some interesting topics.

American Independence Day – July 4th

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Widely considered to be one of the most famous sentences in the English language, these words form part of the opening to the American Declaration of Independence, which was formally adopted on 4th July 1776, a date that resonates with Americans and people around the world to this day.  It is the USA’s most important national holiday and sees huge celebrations throughout the country.

The reason the Declaration of Independence was so important is that it marked the establishment of the United States of America as an independent country, separate from the British Empire.  So when Americans celebrate 4th July each year, they are truly marking their nation’s birthday.

The original declaration was written and voted on amid the turmoil of the American Revolutionary War, which began in 1775, and it was signed by 56 political representatives, including two future Presidents.  Although largely self-governing on a day-to-day level for some time by the 1770s, the colonies were still controlled by the British government, and the imposition of high taxes on residents of the colonies with no representation in the British parliament was a source of huge anger and resentment.  Protests turned into political and diplomatic confrontation, which escalated into armed conflict.

But the Declaration of Independence was not just an expression of political rebellion.  It was a clear statement by the 13 colonies that they wanted more than just a renegotiation of their relationship with Britain, and actually considered themselves capable of becoming a country in their own right.  It was a massive declaration of confidence in their ability to create stable government and to take control of their own affairs with their developing economy and growing population.

At the same time, the opening lines of the famous Declaration show that the founding fathers of the United States intended their country to be one based on certain principles – namely freedom, tolerance and opportunity for all.  As a country that was growing by attracting immigrants from Britain and other European countries with the promise of a new life in the “land of opportunity” this message was a very important one to portray.  The new nation was keen to establish an identity far removed from the traditional, class-ridden monarchies of Europe, which were frequently torn apart by dynastic and religious conflicts that affected all levels of society.

Whatever you may think of the modern USA politically, culturally or economically, there is no doubt that the confidence and optimism expressed in the Declaration of Independence has shaped the country over the years since it was written and indeed they remain characteristics very much associated with its people.  Meanwhile, the fundamental rights enshrined in the declaration continue to be a source of huge national pride for American citizens to this day.

From the year after it was adopted, the date of the Declaration of Independence has been marked in the USA and celebrations on 4th July quickly became part of the new nation’s cultural identity.  For many years, federal employees had the option of taking the day as unpaid leave, but it has been an official federal holiday since 1938, which means that all non-essential institutions (such as the postal service and courts) are closed for the day.  There is a long tradition of politicians speaking at public gatherings on 4th July, with their words generally focusing on national pride, achievements and aspirations.

For the American people, the date is marked in all kinds of ways.  Because the event is so tied up with national identity, the flag – the stars and stripes – is an important symbol.  Its 13 stripes represent the original colonies that declared independence to create the country, while the 50 stars symbolise the 50 modern states.  Although the flag is widely flown throughout the year, much more than is the case in the UK for example, the 4th July is the day when you will see more US flags than at any other time.  Its red, white and blue colours (or should that be colors?) also feature prominently in festive decorations put up in homes and public places.

The fact that the holiday falls in summer means that most Independence Day events are held outdoors.  The most important public events tend to be parades and firework displays, with every town and city holding its own festivities for local people.  In 2013, the value of fireworks imported to the USA from China for 4th July was more than $200 million!  The parades and, particularly, firework displays tend to be accompanied by popular patriotic songs, including such traditional favourites as “America The Beautiful”, “God Bless America” and of course the national anthem “The Star Spangled Banner”.

As well as the public festivities, families traditionally get together for picnics and barbecues, or for baseball games.  Depending on the day of the week the 4th July falls on, the celebrations are either held on the day itself or on the nearest weekend.  Many Americans take advantage of the national holiday to take a long weekend break, to visit relatives in other parts of the country or as part of a longer holiday overseas.

For Americans living in other countries, organising Independence Day parties or events is one of the ways they maintain their cultural links to their homeland.  In major international cities with large American populations, such as London, there are quite large-scale celebrations to mark the day.  US companies in other parts of the world will generally hold celebrations for employees, while of course the date provides an excellent marketing opportunity for any US-themed bars, restaurants or other businesses!

With 4th July falling on the weekend this year, it is sure to be a huge day of festivities for all Americans around the world.  While the barbecues, fireworks and family gatherings are fantastically enjoyable and a great part of summer, I think it’s also very important that the national identity aspect of the date has never been lost.  The parades, the importance of the flag, the political speeches and the patriotic music are a reminder of how a nation that became one of the world’s leading powers in modern times actually began its journey.

Many thanks to Blue Badge Guide, Ian Braisby, for this post.

St Patrick’s Day

Tomorrow is St Patrick’s Day, and here with a post about the day and why we celebrate it, is my lovely husband Ian, who works as a Blue Badge Tourist Guide.

Around the world, 17th March is one of the year’s biggest celebrations, and it’s all thanks to the Irish.  The day is their most important national festival and it’s a time for everyone (Irish or not) to dress in green, get together, sing, dance and, of course, enjoy a pint of Guinness.  But although the modern celebration is known as a huge party with everyone invited, its origins, as the name suggests, are religious.  It is the traditional feast day of Ireland’s Patron Saint and for centuries was a day of prayer and contemplation.

So who was St Patrick and why was he important?  Like many early saints, his origins are somewhat obscure and clouded in legend, but it is generally accepted that Patrick lived in the 4th to 5th Centuries AD and was born in Britain, with modern Scotland the most likely location.  Most stories of his life tell us that he first went to Ireland after being captured by Irish pirates at the age of 16.  During his captivity, he became a Christian and studied to become a Priest after he escaped back to Britain.  Returning to Ireland as a missionary, he played a major part in strengthening and expanding the Christian community in the country and became one of Ireland’s first bishops.

Out of all the legends associated with him, there are two that are particularly famous.  The first is that he used the three leaves of the shamrock, a common plant in Ireland, to teach people about the Christian holy trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  The idea was one plant but three distinct leaves, just like one god with three distinct forms.  The shamrock became one of the symbols associated with Saint Patrick, and as his importance as a revered figure in Ireland grew, the emblem was adopted by the country itself, which it remains to this day.  The plant’s green colour also became recognised as the national colour of Ireland.  The second legend is more of a myth, namely that Saint Patrick banished all snakes from Ireland.  While it is true that there are no snakes native to the country, scientists are fairly certain that this was the case many thousands of years before Saint Patrick stepped ashore.  The story is more likely to symbolise his missionary work, bringing a new faith and strengthening the Christian church, banishing “primitive” beliefs and helping people feel more secure in their community.

After his death, Patrick was venerated as a Saint by Irish Christians, although this status was not officially confirmed for many centuries.  His feast day, which falls on the date of his death, was set aside to remember his life and works.  Over time, especially as Ireland became politically and culturally dominated by Britain, Saint Patrick took on a different status, as a symbol of the Irish nation and traditions, and this was really how his feast day started to become secularised as it is today.  Celebrations that we recognise today – parades, festivals of music and dance, wearing the shamrock symbol – increasingly established themselves.

These days, the day is essentially about celebrating Irish identity, and has been strengthened as Irish people have migrated throughout the world, taking their culture, traditions and festivals with them.  While Dublin has the largest St Patrick’s Day festivities in the world, next come New York and Birmingham, as Irish immigrant communities everywhere have ensured that the day is marked in style.  It is not a public holiday, so the major events generally take place on the closest weekend to 17th March.  Cynics might say the date has become little more than a marketing tool for Guinness and other Irish drinks manufacturers, but there is no doubting the joy and pride that is so obviously on display wherever Saint Patrick’s Day is celebrated. And the best thing of all – you don’t have to be Irish to enjoy it.

Related posts: St Andrew’s Day,   St David’s Day,   St George’s Day

Why is Oktoberfest held in September?

Oktoberfest lasts for 16 days. It starts in late September and finishes on the first Sunday of October – unless the 1st Sunday is before 3rd October, in which case the festival is extended so that it lasts until German Unity Day. This prompted me to ask yesterday, “Why does a nation that generally follow the rules so strictly that they won’t even cross the road on a red man, even when there are no cars to be seen, celebrate Oktoberfest in September?” I decided to find out last night, so I’m sharing my findings, just in case anybody else wondered.

Well, for starters it did used to be held in October.  The first one was a celebration of the marriage of Prince Ludwig (who later became King Ludwig I) to Princess Therese von Sachsen-Hildburghausen. The marriage took place on October 1810, and five days later the people of Munich were invited to festivities which were held on the fields outside one of the town gates.

That first year they had a parade and horse races. The horse races proved so popular that the people decided to repeat the event the following year, and so even though horse racing hasn’t been part of the festival for many years, we have them to thank for the event still being held today. In the second year they also had an agricultural show, by 1816 there were a few carnival stalls and by 1818 the beer stalls that the festival is now renowned for had been added.

But back to my original question. Why is it held in September? It seems the answer is “because the weather is better”! It doesn’t matter to the locals – they don’t even call it Oktoberfest. To them it’s known as Die Wies’n. The fields where the festival was first held were (and still are) called Theresienwiesen (Theresa’s Meadows) in honour of the princess. This name has been shortened locally to die wiesen or die wies’n, and if you don’t call your festival after a month I suppose it doesn’t matter when it is held.

While this story behind the festival is interesting, there is another theory about its origins which sounds equally plausible and you’ll find that here.

And there you have it: the story of Oktoberfest.

Related posts: Why is Tuesday 13th unlucky?   How do they celebrate Christmas in Germany

The Spanish Armada and the Daydreaming Child

A few weeks ago, while working in a school as a supply teacher, I taught a lesson about Spain, and I was finding out from the children what they already knew.

One of them said he had heard of the Spanish Armada, but he wasn’t really sure what it was. I asked if anyone else in the class knew anything about it, and immediately little Alfie* put his hand up. Now I would have sworn this kid hadn’t been listening – he’d been fiddling with his pencil and staring into space – so it was with trepidation that I asked what he knew. I was expecting a random observation about the weather outside, or a family member’s up-coming birthday. Instead I got this:

King Philip II of Spain was married to Queen Mary so he sort of ruled England as well. When Queen Mary died he wanted to stay in charge of England, so he asked Queen Elizabeth I to marry him. She didn’t like him so she said no. King Philip was so cross that she wouldn’t marry him that he raised a fleet of ships – called an Armada – to attack England. It didn’t do any good though because he lost.

Wow! Never, ever under-estimate the child you think isn’t listening!

* not his real name