Ola, What Exactly Is the Cinco de Mayo

This Cinco de Mayo stamp was issued by the United States Post Office in 2005
This Cinco de Mayo stamp was issued by the United States Post Office in 2005

The Fifth of May Explained

The Cinco of May is nothing but a Spanish expression for the fifth of May; the date, when a famous battle took place in Old Mexico. The year was 1862 and the place was the Colonial town of Puebla. Though outnumbered two-to-one the Mexican army defeated the French regulars lead by General Lorencez. At the time the US was involved in a bitter Civil War and so they were unable to take sides in the conflict.

Cinco de Mayo BattleofPuebla2
Cinco de Mayo celebrates the Mexican army’s victory over French forces at the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862

French Intervention In Mexico

During the 19th century the French made two attempts at colonizing Mexico. The first was called the Pastry War and it occurred in 1838. The second begain in 1862 and for five long years. This invasion was known as the Maximilian Affair.

After thie Fifth of May defeat at Puebla, the French retreated to the Gulf Coast at Veracruz. Here, they regrouped and then were able to dominate Mexican affairs until 1866, when the Mexican militia forced the European occupiers to begin their departure. In 1867, the Mexicans took back Mexico City and executed the French Emperor of Mexico, an unpopular fellow by the name of Maximilian. This stormy period of Mexican history underscores the difficult struggle that Mexicans faced, not only with Spain, but other countries as well.


Cinco de Mayo poster in the US
Cinco de Mayo poster in the US

An American Holiday

If you want to celebrate Cinco de Mayo…..don’t go South of the Border……. There’s nothing going on. To really get in the swing of things on the fifth of May, you’ll have to cross the Rio Bravo (for all you gringos that’s the Rio Grande) and visit an appropriate U.S. city or state. Go to the right place and you will see a parade and maybe some bar specials promoting liquid refreshments from our southern neighbor. Cinco de Mayo in the United States has been a time for Mexican-Americans to public celebrate their heritage.


Some Thoughts On Turkey Day

"Mayflower in Plymouth Harbor," by William Halsall
Mayflower in Plymouth Harbor, oil painting by William Halsall, from Wikipedia

Thanksgiving Day

The other day I was sitting in a coffee shop in Santa Fe, NM, when I overheard two men discussing the upcoming holiday in Spanish. To them it was a secular “Anglo” holiday, which could be enjoyed by anybody, who appreciated a well-cooked turkey and a day off. In fact, a little research into the popular national day of rest revealed that Thanksgiving is only widely celebrated in the United States and Canada with the Canadian holiday coming in early October instead of late November. Fixings are about the  same for both nations, but in Canada, Thanksgiving is a three-day (Sat., Sun., Mon.) holiday instead of the normal four in the U.S. Furthermore, in Canada, the popular feast is not tied to any narrative history, like it is in the United States.

Thanksgiving grace in Pennsylvania
Thanksgiving prayer before the meal, Pennsylvania 1942, photo from Farm Security Administration

The Spanish Main
Some historians and cultural commentators are quick to point out that similar feasts or expressions of thanksgiving exist in other parts of North America that predate the 1621 celebration in Massachusetts. Harvest type celebration are cited as having occurred in Florida, Virginia and Texas, years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth. Despite these observations, the New England meeting of European colonists and Massachusetts Native still remains the common told tale of Thanksgiving and thus serves as the philosophical background for the holiday.

Roast Turkey
Roast turkey is the most common meat served at a Thanksgiving dinner, Photo by M. Rehemtulla, from Wikipedia

About the Food
Though the original feast is reportedly to have had many types of wild game (i.e. fish, lobster, eels, goose and deer), the turkey has become the dominant meat symbol for the November get-together. Although wild turkeys were found in many parts of North America, they were quite abundant in Colonial New England, and so became an important part of the diet for the new arrivals from the Old World. Also important to the American colonists were the Native grown foods of corn, squash, beans and pumpkins. Originally developed in Mexico and Central America over several thousand years ago, these agricultural staples were readily adopted by the early explorers and those who followed after them.

Squanto teaching
Squanto (Tisquantum in the Native tongue) was one of the local Indians, who taught the Pilgrims how to survive, from Wikipedia

The Mayflower and the Massachusetts Indians

The travelers aboard the Mayflower were headed for Virginia, but forced to land at Cape Cod because of bad weather. Many of those on board were enraged at having to spend the winter in snowy Massachusetts. Between the November landing and March, when the local Indians first visited the outpost about half of the Pilgrims died. However, because of contact with previous explorers some of the local Indians could understand English and were glad to teach the new colonists how to survive. This was an event that was always repeated in other parts of the New World.

Honoring George

George Washington painted by Charles Wilson Peale in 1772
George Washington painted by Charles Wilson Peale in 1772

Today is President’s Day which is kind of a conglomeration of  Washington’s and Lincoln’s birthday, both of which occur relatively close to each other during the second month of the year. This holiday always brings opportunity for presidential antidotes. This year is no exception and thanks to a recent gaffe committed by one of the rising “Tea Party” political stars, slavery is in the news today, especially in the way it relates to the founding fathers.

Many of the Founding Fathers owned slaves including George Washington, who owned slaves, but also willed that they be given their freedom after both he and his wife had passed away. In fact this was a mildly popular sentiment that was common at the end of the Revolutionary War. Unfortunately, the beginning of the 19th century saw an increase in the slave traffic from Africa. This created much strife in the USA, a fact of life, which did not get resolved into the Civil War.

In years gone by, I use to enjoy railing against our first president, not so much because he owned slaves, but because the site of our nation’s capitol was named for the first general of the War for Independence and might have possibly been built on land that he once owned.

However, a quick bit of research, proved that this was not quite the case.  Though close to the present day District of Columbia, Mt. Vernon never included the land along the Potomac that is now the nation’s seat. Nonetheless, Washington did choose the sight for the new capitol, based on excursions he had once made along the Potomac in the years prior to the war. And the site was chosen because our first president considered to be one of the most beautiful locales in the original thirteen.

From this brief bit of research came another fascinating tidbit about Washington’s life. And that was his ideas on religious tolerance and separation of  church and state, a new concept that ranked very high in George’s attitude. Thanks to modern-day historians we know that Washington attended many different services, including Episcopalian, Quaker and Roman Catholic. When George was at home he did not attend church every Sunday, but often spent the Lord’s day writing letters, conducting business or fox hunting. When he did attend church at home he went to the local Anglican church, where he used to sit with the other Virginia gentry as was the custom of the day. Though once the war ended, George would always sit with the commoners and never did return to his respected place among the privileged.

And finally, it is fairly common knowledge that our first president definitely enjoyed his spirits.  Mount Vernon annually produced a large amount of whiskey, which was sold and traded throughout the region. In fact so much was produced that today the old plantation site is now part of the American Whiskey Trail.

Life of George Washington - The Farmer, lithograph by  Junius Brutus Stearns, 1853
Life of George Washington - The Farmer, lithograph by Junius Brutus Stearns, 1853

A Night In Old New Orleans
A Night In Old New Orleans