Groundhog Day

Do you have a favourite film? 

Or maybe you have a few movies that would be in your Top Ten? If you were making a list.

Are you an action movie fan, or a sci fi fanatic, or perhaps like me you prefer RomComs, a little light  romance and comedy? 

I have to admit, there are some movies that I can watch over and over and over and over and over... and not get bored. And one of those is linked to today.

February 2nd in North America - the USA and Canada - is Groundhog Day and I love the Bill Murray movie of the same name. More of that in a moment.

GroundhogBut first ... what IS a 'groundhog'

Well, it's a kind of rodent, and apparently belongs to the marmot or ground squirrel family. It's found in the USA, Canada and into Alaska. Among other characteristics, they have big teeth and they live in burrows. When fully grown a groundhog can be as long as 27inches (about 69cm) and can weigh as much as 14pounds (over 6kg). I've been doing my research and all I can say is, that groundhog is not a small squirrel!

One of the important things to know about the groundhog is that are hibernators. They often dig a separate 'winter burrow', which they build below the frost line, which means even when it's frozen up top, the animals can safely sleep away the winter months without fear of freezing to death. Usually, groundhogs hibernate from October to March or April, or thereabouts. 

And that's relevant to the tradition of Groundhog Day (the actual day) which apparently is an old superstition from the Pennsylvania Dutch community in America, which says that if a groundhog emerges early from it's burrow - on February 2 - then it can tell us if Spring is on its way.

So the legend goes, if the groundhog sees its shadow due to clear weather, it will quickly nip back into its burrow, and winter will go on for six more weeks. If, however, the animal does NOT see its shadow because it's too cloudy, Spring will arrive early!

All this predicting the weather is part of ancient 'weather lore' which is found in lots of cultures, including German speaking areas (and the Pennsylvania Dutch people come from Germanic-speaking areas of Europe) where the animal predicting the weather is usually a badger, but sometimes a bear or a fox.

And these weather lore predictions are also linked to the Christian festival of Candlemas, which we also celebrate today. Tradition has it that if the weather is clear on Candlemas, we're in for a long winter!

Now of course there's no scientific evidence for such weather predictions, but it's fun isn't it? 

In North America, February 2nd has taken on a special significance. Groundhog Day ceremonies happen on this day across the USA and Canada, but it's in a place called Punxsutawney in western Pennsylvania, that the most popular ceremony occurs, where the focus is a groundhog called 'Punxsutawney Phil'.

And that's the link to the 1993 movie that I mentioned at the start.

'Groundhog Day' starring Bill Murray and Andy MacDowell is largely located in Punxsutawney around the iconic ceremony and the film has not only helped to immortalise the seasonal celebration, but the concept of it has also added a new phrase to our dictionary.

If you haven't ever seen the movie then sorry for the spoiler. Bill Murray plays a cynical (and rather obnoxious) TV weatherman called Phil who is sent to cover the Groundhog Day ceremony, and then finds himself in a time loop through which he is forced to re-live February 2nd ... Groundhog Day ... over and over and over, until he becomes a better person. He learns to live each moment at a time, rather than always chasing ambition and celebrity.

As a result of the movie which was conceived, co-written and directed by Harold Ramis,  we now use the phrase 'Groundhog Day' for any situation which is monotonous, repetitive and even unpleasant and boring.

Since the start of the Coronavirus pandemic, lots of us feel like we've been living Groundhog Day - don't we?

Working from home, staying in and not being able to go out and mingle with others, not being able to see family members - much of our time during 2020 and into 2021 has felt so repetitive and monotonous. I think 'Groundhog Day' is a great way of describing my pandemic experience.

But just as Weatherman Phil in the movie came out of his Groundhog Day a better person, so I believe we can emerge from the COVID19 experience improved and finer examples of humanity.

Early on in the pandemic, especially, we saw so many acts of kindness and caring. The Thursday 8pm 'Clap for Carers' which some are still doing as they Clap for their Heroes. People checking on their neighbours, delivering food and medicines, thinking of others. 

And although Covid fatigue might have stolen a little of that from us as the months have progressed, I believe this time has shown us what a kinder and more compassionate world can look like. 

I'd like to believe that a memory of that kindness might be part of the legacy of our Pandemic Groundhog Day, along with the realisation that life is short and that, no matter how much status and money and position and ambition we chase, perhaps we just need to take more time to breathe, to enjoy our environment and the beauty of the world around us, to appreciate our loved ones more, and maybe even take pleasure in the simple things - like a walk on a Spring morning - no matter when that might be.



It's Pancake Day!

It's Pancake Day! Pancake 2

Well at least it is here in the British Isles!

It’s Pancake Day – a day to ... well ... eat pancakes!

Whether you’ve tucked into a pancake for breakfast, or will have them for your evening meal – there are loads of ways to eat them ...

Sweet ... with lemon and sugar or even some fruit or chocolate spread!

960x1200-pancake-Sprouts2278-768x960Or savoury – cheese, ham, spicy minced meat, avocado... I’ve even seen a recipe for pancakes with Brussel Sprouts and smoked salmon!

It seems pancakes go with anything and everything.

All you need is some flour, egg, salt and little milk, a little pan and – voila!


But the question is -  why do we eat them particularly on this day?

Why is it ‘Pancake Day’?

Well, actually the real name for this day is ‘Shrove Tuesday’. It’s the day before the start of the season of Lent – that begins tomorrow on Ash Wednesday.

The 40 Days of Lent were and still are traditionally a time when people fasted to prepare themselves for the holy festival of Easter which commemorates the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and on the Tuesday before it all began, Christians went to confession and were ‘shriven’ or absolved from their sins, ready for the serious time ahead.

It was also a day when kitchen cupboards were cleared of all the  stuff which couldn’t be eaten  during the Lenten Season, including eggs and fats which they mixed with flour to make – pancakes!

In other parts of the world Pancake Day is called Mardi Gras ... or ‘Fat Tuesday’ ! That phrase also relates to a season of festivals running from the feast of the Epiphany. which we celebrated on January 6th, through to Shrove Tuesday.

Polish_paczkiSome cultures, including Poland, make donuts instead for Fat Thursday – that was last week! It happens five days days before the start of Lent.

So – however many pancakes you eat today, and however you eat them – you’re in good company.



And you’re part of history ... the pancake has featured in cookery books as far back as 1439. And no sooner were they cooking them than people were flipping  them! In the town of Olney in Buckinghamshire they’ve apparently been tossing  pancakes since 1445 – it’s the most famous Pancake Race  in the world! Of course, it's not happening this year because of the coronavirus pandemic ... but it will live on!


*Footnote - by the way if you happen to be listening to BBC Radio Jersey this morning  - Shrove Tuesday 2021  - you might hear these words I've written above. I have recorded them ... or most of them ... for a little 'Pancake Day Explainer' ... just part of my contribution to the understanding and fun of the day!

An Irish Blessing for St Patrick's Day

Today - March 17th - is St Patrick's Day.

It's the day that Ireland and Irish people or those of Irish descent across the world celebrate - well, BEING Irish - and one of their most important patron saints. In 'normal times' much partying is done , much Guinness is drunk and shamrocks are worn, but importantly it's a day when many people go to church to remember St Patrick and give thanks for him, because it is, first and foremost, a spiritual/holy day.

Don't worry, I'm not going to start a whole essay about St Patrick. That would take far too long because it's a very complicated story, with many twists and turns, legends and stories of miracles.

Just some highlights.

Patrick wasn't Irish but was born in Roman Britain. When he was about 16 he was captured by Irish pirates and taken as a slave to the island of Ireland, where he mostly looked after animals for about six years. It's while he was looking after those sheep that it's believed he 'found God'. He escaped and managed to get home to his family where he studied Christianity and eventually became a priest. Later he returned to the place where he had been imprisoned to spread the Christian message to the Irish, who mostly practised a form of paganism ... the ancient Celtic religion.

And if you're wondering why the shamrock, or the three leaf clover, is a symbol of Ireland on this day in particular, it's because Patrick is said to have used the little plant with the three leaves to explain the Christian Holy Trinity - God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit - to those he was hoping to convert.

Patrick didn't have it easy. Standing up to the local warlords, often apparently getting beaten up, sometimes being imprisoned and threatened with execution. But he continued his mission and although there is evidence of a Christian presence in Ireland before Patrick, he is generally considered as the founder of the faith there. He became a bishop and is known as the 'Apostle of Ireland',  and his feast day is marked on March 17th, the day it's thought he died.

But we can't be exactly sure. There's lots of mystery surrounding Patrick, even question marks over when he lived. It's generally believed that he was a missionary in Ireland during the fifth century, and by the seventh century, he had become revered as the patron saint of Ireland.

So today, to mark the day and to celebrate the man who was St Patrick and the legacy of faith he brought to Ireland, I leave you with one of my favourite Irish Blessings.


Irish blessing road
*Oh and if you're wondering, the 'road' in this picture is La Grande Route de St Ouen in Jersey.


Happy St George's Day!

Today is St George's Day!

St George is the Patron Saint of England and so, actually, today could be considered the country's 'national day', except for a lot of people it will just pass them by. Some do 'celebrate' but it's not great partying like, for instance, St Patrick's Day in Ireland. 

Flag of st georgeToday, though, the flags will be out boldly displaying the red cross of St George which has been an emblem of England since the late Middle Ages. Of course, it's also part of the Union Jack which brings together emblems from all the British nations which were designed in when that flag was created in around the year 1606.  

But the story of St George goes back a lot further than that.

Down the centuries we've heard the story of George and the Dragon.  St George slayed ... well, a dragon. That's how he became famous. Right?

Well no  ... sorry to burst your bubble ... but it's a bit of legend!

We actually know little about George, the real man. Tradition says he was born around the year 280AD in a place called Cappadocia, an area that is now part of Turkey. He was born into a Christian family and George followed his father's profession and became a soldier in the Roman army.

He rose in the ranks to eventually become a member of the elite Praetorian Guard.  This was a highly esteemed unit of the Imperial Roman Army whose members served as personal bodyguards and intelligence for Roman emperors. George served under the Emperor Diocletian.

Over a couple of centuries since the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Christian faith had grown and although persecuted especially in the very early days, believers had begun to gain some legal rights. But during the reign of Diocletian and other emperors who served concurrently and around the same time  -  MaximianGalerius, and Constantius - a series of edicts were issued which rescinded those rights. This Diocletian Persecution has gone down in history as one of the most severe periods of oppression. One of the central features was that Christians were forced to comply with Roman, pagan, religious practices, including sacrificing to the Roman gods, and it was death for those who refused.

George was among the leading Christians who protested this persecution of his people and he did refuse to deny his faith, so Emperor Diocletian ordered his execution. He was was to death, allegedly beheaded, around April 23 in the year 303 AD, in Palestine, in a place called Lydda, now the town of Lod in Israel. His bones are buried in his tomb in the Church of Saint George, in Lod.

George was first written about a couple of decades later, around 322 by the historian Eusebius of Caesarea, and over the following centuries he became of of the most venerated saints and martyrs in Christianity. His story apparently made it to England in the early 700s and he was made patron saint of England in the year 1098, after soldiers at the Battle of Antioch claimed they saw him and he came to their aid. That battle was one of the early conflicts in what became known as the 'Crusades'  - a period of nearly 200 years when the medieval Christians fought Muslim rulers for control of what we now know as the Holy Land.

To mark his life, Saint George's Day is traditionally celebrated on 23 April, but it's interesting to note that it's not just in England that he's venerated. He's also the patron saint of Ethiopia, the country of Georgia, Catalonia and Aragon in Spain, the city of Moscow in Russia, and in several other states, regions, cities, universities, professions and organizations. 

And what about that dragon story?

Well the legend of Saint George and the Dragon was first recorded in the 11th century. It reached Catholic Europe by the 12th century. And one version goes something like this. 

A fierce dragon was causing panic at the city of Silene in Libya, and every day the people gave two sheep to the dragon to stop the creature killing the whole population. But when the sheep were not enough, or ran out, they turned to human sacrifice to satisfy the demands of that dragon. The person to be sacrificed was chosen by the people themselves, and eventually the king's daughter was selected. The monarch hoped someone else would step forward, but no one was prepared to stand in the place of the princess. 

Brave George was in the city and he saved the girl by slaying the dragon with a lance. The king was so grateful that he offered him treasures as a reward for saving his daughter's life, but George refused the gifts and instead he gave it all to the poor. People were so amazed by his bravery and kindness that many of them converted and became Christians.

It's a story which takes several forms and is actually attributed to different people and saints across time, including in the pre-Christian era. It's a legend known in many parts of the world and is familiar as being part of folklore called the Golden Legend. By the 15th century it was a popular story in England, thanks to a translation by William Caxton.  Among other things Caxton was a writer, He's credited with introducing the printing press into England in 1476 and he became the first person to sell printed books.

But was it true?

Well, maybe, but only if you believe in dragons...!

However, in Medieval England the tale of an heroic Christian soldier coming to the rescue of a beautiful princess suited the whole idea of courtly love, chivalry and the creation of social order. Think the mythical legends of King Arthur and his knights. It's similar stuff. 

There are, of course, many notions and theories of what it all means but the one I like is that the tale of George and the Dragon epitomises the enduring story of the fight between Good and Evil, Light and Darkness.

Fables such as these go back many many thousands of years and can be found in numerous ancient cultures. Many of our relatively modern 'fairy' tales often contain these deeply moral and philosophical lessons.

The legend may also have more of a solid foundation in the Christian faith which the  real George followed. The story may also reflect his fight against the evil of the persecution of early Christians and the execution and martyrdom of faithful ones like George himself, and the power of Jesus Christ to overcome evil and death.

Whatever the case, it's a great story.

So - Happy St George's Day!


Summer Prayer

About this time of the year in the northern hemisphere of our planet, it's the longest day of the year.

Between about June 20 and 22nd there is more daylight than darkness, more days of sunshine hopefully because it's the moment when the path of the sun is farthest north. For those of us north of equator, it's the beginning of what is called 'astronomical summer'! Otherwise known as 'Summer Solstice'.

And this year the beginning of that season ... midsummer ... is today -  June 21 - when give or take the UK will enjoy around 16 hours and 38 minutes of daylight, with the sun rising before 5am and setting around 9.30pm.

Summer Solstice (and actually Winter Solstice which here falls on or around December 21st) has always had cultural,  spiritual and even religious significance for humankind. Many cultures assign importance to the elements and the seasons and so this is a time for celebration, holidays, festivals and rituals. In many countries and regions this is associated with religion and even fertility as the Summer Solstice marks the time when crops are growing, nature is thriving and people are enjoying the goodness of life and are optimistic for the future. 

At places like Stonehenge - the circle of prehistoric Standing Stones on Salisbury Plain in the county of Wiltshire in England - ceremonies to mark the rising of the sun on this day have been held for thousands of years, as people recognised the religious significance of the mysticism of creation.

The Summer Solstice was and still is a marker for the year and the rolling out of the seasons. Neolithic humans may initially have started to observe the summer solstice as a way to figure out when to plant and harvest crops. We know that in Ancient Egypt, the summer solstice corresponded with the rise of the Nile River so it helped people to predict the annual flooding, and that was obviously related to the viability of their crops along the banks of the river, and the potential harvests later in the year. If you fancy reading more about this time of year there is loads online, including a great website hosted by the History Channel.

But the significance of days like today transcends nature. Before humans understood how the earth interacts with our sun and why the days of light and darkness differ according to the seasons, this period of long days of daylight would have been connected with mysticism and powerful messages about the universe. The word Solstice is derived from the Latin words sol (Sun) and sistere (to stand still) ... this day it would have felt as if the sun was motionless in the heavens and so it would have had some spiritual significance and traditions and behaviours developed around the day.

According to pagan folklore, evil spirits would appear on the Summer Solstice so in order to ward these off, people would wear protective garlands of herbs and flowers. Some midsummer traditions involve dancing around the 'maypole'. Bonfires were lit, also to help banish those demons and evil spirits. Ancient 'magic' was thought to be strongest at this time of year and those bonfires were also thought to lead girls to their future husbands - again linked to that sign of fertility. 

The Summer Solstice is often associated with the ancient religions which pre-date Christianity and were closely aligned to nature and the seasons. And regardless of whether we are people of 'faith' or not, the Summer Solstice is a time when we can appreciate the warmth of the sun and the potential in our world, and be inspired for the future.

I could have given you all kinds of quotes about Summer Solstice today ... there are masses online ... but I found this prayer which, as a person of faith, says it all for me.

Enjoy this long day everyone!

And if you're in the southern hemisphere ... be assured that as you are now halfway through your 'winter', summer is on its way!

Summer Prayer





Give Thanks

Spiritual thoughts come from many different directions, and I think this year so far I've turned to a few in this daily blog. 

Today I turn to the wisdom of a man called Tecumseh who lived in the late 18th and early 19th century in what is now 'America'.

He was a chief of the Shawnee tribe and a warrior who resisted the expansion of the United States onto Native American lands. He wanted to draw  the different tribes to his cause so he travelled widely trying to encourage different indigenous peoples to support the resistance to the expansion of the 'incomers' who were determined to take over their lands. This resulted in a Native American confederacy and although his efforts to unite Native Americans ended with his death in the War of 1812, his legacy did not die with him. Tecumseh has become an iconic folk hero in American, Indigenous, and Canadian popular history.

Native Americans were and are a very spiritual people, with a culture, philosophy and spirituality close to the land and nature, animals and the universe, and although Tecumseh and his peoples lived so long ago and in very different times, some of the thoughts that have been handed down through the centuries are profound and are really pertinent to our circumstances today. They go to the heart of what it is to be 'human' and that is so thought-provoking.

So, for this Saturday, here's one of those wise Native American thoughts ... attributed to Tecumseh himself.

Once you've asked yourself these challenging questions ... Have a happy day !

Saturday thanks

A Prayer for All Hallows' Eve

Today is All Hallows' Eve ... yes I know many of you reading this will say 'It's actually Halloween' but it's one and the same thing.

Except All Hallows' Eve came first!!!

AllhallowtideYou may not know this but October 31 is actually the first of three significant days in the Christian church - the Allhallowtide season which includes All Hallows' Eve,  All Hallows' Day ... otherwise known as All Saints' Day (Nov 1) ... and All Souls' Day (Nov 2). And it's really all about 'remembrance'. Remembering the dead, including saints (hallows), martyrs, and all those who have left his life.

Let's work backwards.

All Souls' Day is also known as the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed and the Day of the Dead. It's a day set aside to pray and remember the souls of those who have died. This is observed by Roman Catholics and other Christian denominations annually on November 2. 

All Saints' Day, as I said, is also known as All Hallows' Day, the Feast of All Saints, the Feast of All Hallows, the Solemnity of All Saints, and Hallowmas. It's a Christian solemnity or festival in which we celebrate, honour and remember all the saints of the church, known or unknown. It's celebrated on November 1st and is actually considered to be one of the 'holiest' days of the year.

And before All Hallows' Day comes  ... All Hallows' Eve .. the day or evening before All Hallows' Day!

So how did the day before a most holy and solemn day become what it is today - Halloween - considered to be a day which appears to be associated with ghosts and witches and spooky stuff, and evil? 

One theory is that it may all go back to the ancient Celtic harvest festivals and particularly the Gaelic festival of Samhain, which is believed to have pagan roots and when people would light bonfires and wear costumes to ward off ghosts. Some believe that when Christianity came along, Samhain was Christianized as All Hallows'  Day, along with its eve. In the eighth century, it's said that Pope Gregory III designated November 1 as a time to honour all saints. Soon, All Saints' Day incorporated some of the traditions of Samhain. The evening before the holy day became known as All Hallows' Eve, and later Halloween. Anyway, it's thought that long ago in Ireland and Britain, Christians would come together on this day to ask for God's blessing and protection from the evil in the world. 

Another theory is that Halloween began solely as a Christian vigil of All Hallows' Day. It was celebrated in Ireland and Scotland in the 19th century, and it's thought that Irish and Scottish migrants brought many Halloween customs to North America, and then through American influence, Halloween spread to many other countries by the 21st century with it's activities like trick-or-treating, carving jack-o-lanterns out of pumpkins, festive gatherings, donning costumes and eating treats.

It's now a hugely commercial day but some people do try to resist it and in some parts of the church, instead of Halloween parties, Light Parties are held instead .. to emphasise good rather than evil. Light rather than darkness.

So today instead of playing a spooky song (and there are lots of them) and talking about spells and witches and all that weird, if fun, stuff, I'm turning to a prayer for All Hallows' Eve.

It's just one of the resources produced by the church on this day ... this one is from the Church of England and the Mission Theology Advisory Group which is an ecumenical group formed in partnership between Churches Together in Britain and Ireland and the
Church of England...

CandleSo let's pray ... 

Lord, tonight,
We will face all that most concerns us:
our fears, the shadowed places of the mind;
the coming of winter darkness;
the cold thin place between waking and sleep.

We call to mind the powerless, the lonely,
those who most fear the knock at the door;
all those deceived by the world’s empty promises;
all those cowed by menaces or threats.

We stand with those weak in body, mind or spirit
and those seduced by treats or hurt by tricks.

Lord, your light shines into every darkness.
You told us: pray ‘deliver us from evil’.
Your Spirit gives us hope, gives us courage,
a candle in the window unhurt by the wind.


Remember Remember

Today is November 5th and for readers in the British Isles and the UK ... we know tonight as 'Bonfire Night'.

On this night, traditionally we bundle up against the cold, light huge bonfires and enjoy fireworks displays and have a fun celebration with warming drinks and food!

Now if you're not from a British background or heritage you might be wondering why we do this on this day in particular.

Is is a religious festival? No - although it does usually coincide with the five-day festival of Diwali which also features lights and fireworks and which is one of the major religious festivals celebrated by HindusJainsSikhs and some BuddhistsNewar Buddhists.

Bonfire Night is also known as 'Guy Fawkes Night' and it actually marks a day in 1605 which involved a chap called Guy Fawkes  and which is all about insurrection and plots to bring the King of England. And although it's not a religious festival, there are religious links in the origins of the day.

Fawkes was part of the Gunpowder Plot which was a failed conspiracy by a group of provincial English Roman Catholics to assassinate King James I of England, who was also King James VI of Scotland - who was a Protestant. They wanted to replace James with a Catholic monarch.

The plotters were actually led a man called Robert Catesby - one of the leading Catholics who wanted to restore the Catholic monarchy from the Church of England after decades of intolerance against Catholics. After 45 years of hounding and persecution under the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, people like Catesby had hopes of securing greater religious tolerance from King James but when things did not improve under James, drastic action was required. Catesby gathered like-minded people around him. They were Guy Fawkes, Robert KeyesThomas Bates, Ambrose Rookwood, John and Christopher WrightRobert and Thomas WintourThomas Percy,  John Grant, Francis Tresham and Sir Everard Digby.

Catesby and his fellow conspirations planned to blow up the House of Lords during the State Opening of Parliament in London on 5 November 1605. This would be followed by a popular revolt in the Midlands region of England, and James's nine-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, would be installed as the Catholic head of state.

And it was Guy Fawkes, who had 10 years of military experience fighting in the Spanish Netherlands in the failed suppression of the Dutch Revolt, who was to be in charge of the explosives. 

The plotters rented a house near to the Houses of Parliament and managed to smuggle 36 barrels of gunpowder - around 2.5 tons - into a cellar under the palace ready to blow it up. However, the authorities got to hear about the plot in an anonymous letter sent to William Parker, 4th Baron Monteagle. That was on 26th October 1605 and on the eve of the State Opening of Parliament, during the evening of November 4th 1605, the authorities moved in and did a search, and found Fawkes guarding those 36 barrels of gunpowder. If the plot had worked, the House of Lords would have been reduced to rubble.

Guy Fawkes was arrested. Most of his co-conspirators fled from London but the idea of insurrection was still with them. They tried to enlist support along the way but were being chased down including by the Sheriff of Worcester and his men. Some of the rebels met the Sheriff and his men at  at Holbeche House and Catesby was one of those shot and killed in that battle.

The remaining conspirators were put on trial (but not before a period of torture) and on 27th  January 1606, eight of the survivors, including Fawkes, were convicted and sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered. A few days later - on 31st  January 1606 - he and the others were executed. Fawkes was 35.

So - I know what you're all thinking - how do we go from a plot to kill a king and blow up a parliament to a night where we burn bonfires and enjoy fireworks?

Well, immediately after the arrest of Guy Fawkes and the rebels, the King's Council allowed and encouraged the public to celebrate the monarch's survival with bonfires - so long as they were "without any danger or disorder". So it was that the first celebrations of the failure of the Gunpowder Plot was actually in 1605.   

In January 1606, just days before Fawkes and his fellow surviving conspirators were executed, Parliament passed the Observance of 5th November Act, which was commonly known as the "Thanksgiving Act". This meant November 5th was free as a day of thanksgiving and church going, even having its own form of service in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, for use on that date. 

Although there's not much history on the earliest celebrations we know that in places like Carlisle, Nottingham and Norwich people celebrated with music and military parades. In the town of Canterbury in Kent, November 5th 1607 was celebrated with 106 pounds (48 kg) of gunpowder and 14 pounds (6.4 kg) of match -  that's slow-burning cord or twine fuse. Three years later food and drink was provided for local dignitaries, as well as music, explosions, and a parade by local militiamen.

Across the country bonfire celebrations became more and more popular down the years and and later people started setting off fireworks representing the gunpowder used in the plot.

And another thing - even today day the cellars under the Houses of Parliament are ceremonially searched before the annual State Opening.

There's even a poem which was written in the year 1626 by the poet John Milton, who was born just three years after the Gunpowder Plot.

The poem has become part of English folklore and it ensured that the date when the king was saved from death was not forgotten. And in some sense, it may also have ensured that Fawkes has gone down in history as a folk hero, or anti-hero - someone willing to stand up for his beliefs and was martyred for it.  

Remember Remember Nov 5thRemember, remember, the Fifth of November

Gunpowder treason and plot
I see no reason why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot

Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes, 'twas his intent
To blow up the King and the Parliament
Three score barrels of powder below
Poor old England to overthrow
By God's providence he was catch'd
With a dark lantern and burning match
Holler boys, holler boys, let the bells ring

Holler boys, holler boys, God save the King!

Bonfires and fireworks became increasingly popular on November 5th and it's now fixed in the British calendar.

There are certain 'traditions' associated with the night as well ... often, a 'Guy' (a stuffed dummy or effigy) was put on the top of the bonfire and burnt. Back in the day I remember kids taking the dummy around the neighbourhood (sometimes in a baby's pram or a cart) asking for 'a penny for the guy'... money was then spent on fireworks. People had bonfires and fireworks at home, although because of health and safety, these days most people attend big centrally organised bonfires, with many of the events now raising money for charity.

So, whatever you're doing tonight, or over the weekend, stay safe - and have a brilliant Guy Fawkes Night.

And while you're enjoying those fireworks ... maybe just take a moment to remember why we have this day!




Happy Boxing Day!

Happy Boxing Day!

Now, all those who live in the UK or Great Britain, and some of you who are from other countries that were once part of the British Empire or are still in the Commonwealth of Nations may know what I'm talking about.

Others - probably most of the world actually - not so much! So maybe a little explanation might be in order?

These days, and for a long time actually, Boxing Day is the day after Christmas Day - so December 26th - and it's still a 'bank holiday' or national holiday here in the British Isles. So it's part of the Christmas 'break' that lots of people have from work. 

But why 'Boxing' Day?

Well there are a couple of explanations knocking around and it's probably a bit of a mixture of history actually.

Wind the clock back to the Middle Ages and in Europe there was a tradition of giving money and other gifts to those who were in need, the poor in the village, or those who 'served' the community in some way. One thought is that the 'boxing' could refer to the alms box placed in the narthex (the porch or lobby) of Christian churches to collect donations for the poor.

And the custom of people being encouraged to pop even small donations in the Poor Box is thought to date back even further, to the late Roman and early Christian era, when alms boxes were used to collect special offerings which would be distributed to needy people in the community on the Feast of Saint Stephen, which, in the Western Christian Churches, falls on the same day as 'Boxing Day' ... December 26th.

So today is not just Boxing Day, it's ALSO St Stephen's Day!

St Stephen's DayOh and if you're not aware, Saint Stephen's Day is a day set aside in the  Christian church to commemorate Saint Stephen, who is the first recorded Christian martyr. 

Stephen was one of the very early Christians after the time of Jesus and he so angered the Jewish religious leaders in Jerusalem with his talk of the Good News of Jesus Christ that he was accused of blasphemy and was stoned to death. We hear about this event and Stephen's influence in the New Testament and the Acts of the Apostles .. chapter 7 specifically.

Worth a read if you're interested especially as Stephen's story links back to helping the poor. In Acts Chapter 6 we read about Stephen being one of the Greek-speaking Hellenistic Jews who were selected to be part of a fairer distribution of welfare to Greek-speaking widows.

Anyway, St Stephen is remembered today in Western Christianity and tomorrow - December 27th -  in Eastern Christianity.  And his feast day is actually commemorated in many European countries. If you wonder why St Stephen's Day in this image is called the 'Second Day of Christmas' and are confused because you think Christmas ended yesterday ... on Christmas Day ... then stand by, because I'll explain this down the line. Well before the year ends anyway, because that's when this blog will draw to a close.

I read an interesting theory about all this which also links Boxing Day to the Christmas carol "Good King Wenceslas" and St Stephen's Day.

Wenceslas was the Duke of Bohemia in the early 10th century and so the carol tell us, he was surveying his land on St. Stephen's Day — December 26th — when he saw a poor man gathering wood in the middle of a snowstorm. So moved was he by the plight of the poor fellow that the Duke/King gathered up surplus food and wine and carried them through the blizzard to the peasant's door.

Here's a folksy version of the carol which I love ...

Helping the poor has always been part of the Christmas season but King Wenceslas' good deed came the day after Christmas, when the English poor received most of their charity. In fact, as we've already discovered, during Advent Church of England parishes would prominently display a box in which churchgoers were encouraged to place donations in the run up to Christmas, and on December 26th these alms boxes were broken open and their contents distributed among the poor. 

But there's another explanation for the 'Boxing' Day moniker and it's more to do with commerce that church. 

To discover more, we move a little further through history and find ourselves in Britain in the 17th century, where tradesmen often received "Christmas boxes" containing presents or money on the first weekday after Christmas as thanks for good service throughout the past year. And this custom is thought to be linked to an older British tradition where, on the day after Christmas Day, servants of the wealthy were allowed, to visit their families - they obviously didn't get December 25th off work. Employers would give every servant a box to take home containing gifts, bonuses, and sometimes leftover food from their own Christmas table.

In Britain in the 1830's the day after Christmas Day is recorded as a holiday especially for postmen, errand boys, and servants of various kinds who would have been very busy in the run-up to the festive season. And on this day one tradition was to thank them for their sterling work with a 'Christmas box' which again might contain money or gifts. In fact, until the late 20th century many in the UK continued the tradition, giving gifts including cash to people like postmen and milkmen and others who served them in the community.

I can't say I've heard of that happening much these days ... but it's a nice idea, don't you think?

Just a way of saying 'thanks' to all those who quietly get on with their job throughout the year but who make a huge difference to our lives. Those who serve us in the shops and those who ensure the food gets to the shelves in the first place. Those who deliver our mail, those who sweep our roads and keep our infrastructure going. Those who serve us in cafes and restaurants ... I could go on ... but without their quiet service, our communities would be in turmoil.

So today, on Boxing Day ... or St Stephen's Day if you prefer ... let's think of all those who serve us and say .... THANK YOU!

And to everyone reading this ....

Happy Boxing Day