375th Anniversary of The First Muster

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The funny thing about history is that once someone tells you the facts, you’re inclined to believe them, especially if there are events associated with those specific dates and facts.

That being said, this past Saturday marked the 375th Anniversary of The First Muster of the National Guard in 1637, according to the ceremony (and the much-appreciated updates from the Haunted Happenings Magazine). But when I went on the National Guard’s website, it states that they celebrated their 370th birthday in 2006…so…wouldn’t that mean that it began in 1635?

Governor Deval Patrick proposed a bill to officially recognize Salem as the birthplace of the National Guard. Up until the beginning of this month, it was waiting to be passed by the Senate, and since it’s not a bill that proves the existence of Republican time travel, everyone was sure it was going to be passed. Now that it has, it’s a nice boost to Salem’s economy, although it appears to have pissed off four people.

Regardless, that doesn’t detract from the fact the Guard is an organization steeped in history, cares about its Guardmembers and even has a mobile app, unlike its younger brother, the self-congratulatory and Call of Duty-excelling army.

Great period costumes, cute horses, good weather and tons of people out with their families on the Common to commemorate whatever this was supposed to be.

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Happy Thanksgiving

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Today is a day where every American forgets the violent invasion of the New World and enjoys a peaceful day off work with friends, family and freaking huge amounts of food. Basically, what us Brits do for Christmas.

My first ever Thanksgiving, the husband and I went to the mother-in-law’s for the day. I wasn’t working at the time, and my sister-in-law was driving us up with her kids and her partner. Being used to dressing smartly for Christmas, I ended up  being somewhat overdressed in a nice Julien Macdonald green number (OK, it was from his Debenhams collection) while everyone else was rocking Land’s End.

It also wasn’t my mother-in-law’s house; she was a live-in home care assistant for an elderly lady whose family lived up the road, but couldn’t be bothered to actually show up. So they had just left her alone for Thanksgiving. Charming. She was happy to have all of us (two of my husband’s other siblings came too), and it was a fun day of garden American football, playing in leaves, video games, pie-baking (four – cherry; apple; pumpkin and cherry-apple) and lots and lots of other food.

All of the vegetables were mashed and pureed – I thought this was for the elderly lady’s benefit, but it turned out that that really was a type of tradition. A little weird, especially considering that we had, well, failed to provide ourselves with any kind of turkey substitute, both of us being vegetarian.

Thanksgiving has been accepted as a family-centric tradition for a long time. More so than Christmas, but the idea still seems foreign to me for the most obvious reasons: we don’t have it in the UK, I don’t eat turkey and I have no family here. You’ve got the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade (a huge parade in NYC), an American football game and, again, a truckload of food.

The feast I made in 2009: vegetarian roast; caramelised butternut squash; chili-cumin roasted sweet potatoes; onion mash; apple-walnut stuffing (made from scratch); cranberry sauce; veggies; salad; pumpkin pie

Speaking of food, most of what I see on TV and read about what others make usually have ingredients regional to New England – cranberries, apples, sweet potatoes, pumpkins, yams and other gourds, butternut squash – all local fare. Other items such as pecan (pie), cornbread (stuffing) and Collard greens are Southern traditions that were spread by travellers. Other traditions are things like turducken, a mutant meat monster popularised by sports broadcaster and video game inspirer John Madden:

yep, that's turkey, duck and chicken.

But the fact remains that most traditional Thanksgiving food is largely influenced by New England traditions. Why? Because when the Pilgrims swanned into what they thought was India, they ran out of food (killing Native Americans and stealing their land is hungry work) because supplies were improperly organised, so the Native Americans kindly offered up a lot of their food to share, completely unaware that this random act of kindness would evolve into a holiday glossing over the origins of itself and bastardising the act in the first place. This has now become a non-religious, national holiday, which plays a part in why everyone and their mum and Atheist partner or Catholic sister-in-law or Wiccan cousin can all celebrate together.

This website is an excellent resource for the history of all things Thanksgiving, but in summary, the first few Thanksgivings in New England were based off of English harvest celebrations – funnily enough, nothing I’m used to seeing in England. Ever. Washington was one of the first Presidents to declare it a national holiday, and magazine editor Sarah Josepha Hale got Abraham Lincoln to  declare two yearly Thanksgivings, one being the last Thursday in November. After Roosevelt pushed it back by one week to lengthen the Christmas shopping season in the late ’30s, it was reinstated to the last Thursday of the month a few years later.

My husband’s family Thanksgiving gatherings have sort of died out for the time being, so yesterday I did what most English people do before a national holiday and got proper drunk. I spent most of the day sleeping off quite possibly the worst monster hangover I’ve ever had, and only woke up a few hours ago to watch Thanksgiving-themed TV episodes on Hulu.

Remembrance Day

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Today goes by a lot of names -Armistice Day, Remembrance Day, Poppy Day – but here in the U.S., it’s known as Veteran’s Day. Honouring the day here is a lot different to what I’m used to, but I didn’t get to experience it fully because I worked from home today. Here, banks are closed and maybe a special is run on the news or TV, but that’s pretty much it. The UK observes a two-minute silence at 11am, and I rescheduled a virtual meeting so I could observe it myself – I may have been working from home, more or less in silence, but click-clacking on a keyboard and talking about configuring an FTP client installation didn’t really feel terribly respectful and would be missing the point.

I’ve worked in shops and offices where everyone observes it – not obediently, but as a matter of solidarity in tribute and tradition. The meaning behind it is that every fallen soldier is remembered, and being idealistically pacifist, I can still show my own respect because it is not supposed to be about me or about any political agenda.

These guys are a pretty common sight in October and early November, but there’s nothing of the sort here. No-one pins a poppy to their lapel, which is ironic considering that in 1918, American YMCA employee Moina Michael actually conceived of the idea of wearing a poppy to show her respect in the first place, after being inspired by the poem In Flanders Fields (see the top of this post). In just a few short years, she had spread the practice to Canada, the UK, Australia and most of Europe. According to Wikipedia (I know…), it is a practice for Memorial Day, but I have never seen it. How did something like that die out over here?

George Bush (the older one that harassed Homer Simpson, not the monkey man) banned any media coverage of the repatriation of fallen soldiers, something that was only overturned by Obama in 2009. Like they’re ashamed to admit these kinds of losses other than the lackadaisical pre-advert video blurbs on CNN?

In the UK, the repatriation of fallen soldiers is a public event, albeit a respectful one. The bodies would be repatriated to RAF Lyneham and would pass through a tiny market town called Wootton Bassett – now Royal Wootton Bassett (although it will now be through Brize Norton). The crowds watching the hearses would grow bigger with each funeral procession, and while I have never attended one, I would always see from the media coverage that it was a sombre affair, with the feeling of a national patriotic event without the nastiness (like a well-behaved international football tournament win).

My attention was recently brought to a story saying that the U.S. military were dumping ashes and body parts of fallen U.S. soldiers into a landfill in Virginia. The article does state that they are parts and not complete bodies, but it’s still so appalling and disrespectful, and brings to mind other people who did pretty much the same thing. And no, you can’t cite Godwin’s Law for that. Sorry.

Someone suggested to me that perhaps the U.S. just didn’t want people knowing exactly how many bodies were coming back, which is in such stark contrast to the repatriation tradition I grew up knowing about. A few Hallowe’ens ago I saw a couple of Army recruiting officers with a van talking to tons of small kids, luring them with a van that had a big TV and an Xbox where they could play Call of Duty. I found that pretty distasteful. They were like bankers or salesmen – lure you in with false promises and flashy demos/literature and then just completely screw you over when you’re in any kind of trouble.

So I didn’t wear a poppy this year, but I observed the two-minute silence. I didn’t know what to think about, but that first minute went pretty quick, thinking about why people become soldiers in the first place, why we go to war, what the fine line is when you’re signing up for a job where you know you might have to kill people for a living, but you can’t be a bad person. For some people, it can be a rite-of-passage. I didn’t know that the lead singer of Tool/A Perfect Circle served in the 80s, along with a few other surprise names.

©Jeff Spicer/ALPHA Katherine Jenkins launches the Poppy Appeal 2006 at the Plaza Covent Garden, London

My own father worked as a doctor in the army in South Asia, and so did his late elder brother, a highly-respected General whom my Dad always looked up to and always spoke of fondly. One of my cousins served in the British Navy before finishing law school and even met the Queen herself. It’s likely you’ll know at least one person who’s served in the armed forces. For many of my friends who enlisted or tried to, they said it was a great opportunity to see the world. I don’t personally know any fallen soldiers, but I still felt a bit angry at FIFA’s decision banning football players from wearing poppies, owing to it being a “political statement”. This is just not true. A fallen soldier is a fallen soldier, who may have had completely different political ideals and religious beliefs from his fellow fallen comrade. It has nothing to do with politics and everything to do with showing respect for the dead.

After so much humourless negativity and bleak subject matter in this post. I think we need a picture of a cupcake:

Guy Fawkes Night in America, a.k.a ___

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Saturday was Guy Fawkes Night, and what a perfect opportunity it was for chavs and norms alike to bask in the glow of a local fireworks display without having to work the next day (unless you work in retail/call centres). Most residents from my tiny town of Waterlooville would have likely shifted to Cosham to watch the display on the formerly-IBM field near the tax office or headed a little further into Pompey to check out the Gunwharf/Southsea offerings. Recalling the last time I was there, I can imagine this past weekend’s frivolities involving fairground rides, chip butties (one of the most amazing culinary delights on this planet) and um, fireworks.

Since fireworks are illegal in Massachusetts, on Saturday I tackled a large pile of laundry, ate a noodle cup and rearranged my reusable shopping bags into organized piles.

Americans don’t really celebrate Bonfire Night, probably because of the fact that we are technically burning effigies of the guy who tried to blow up Parliament back when they hated the Catholics so much (that’s what you get for being stuck with a King who got so lazy to keep killing his wives that he finally created a brand new anti-Catholic church for his divorces). But, much like their tweaking of our sports/spelling/road-driving alignment, couldn’t they just have tweaked the celebrations a bit? Like still set up bonfires, but maybe burn the Flag of the 13 colonies  instead as a “screw you” to us Brits?

I recall the first time I was here for 4th of July, and started reminiscing about how, even when I grew up in a boring bungalow in Cowplain, I could still hear one or two neighbours setting off fireworks for that day. I had assumed that there was probably some Yank lurking in the midst because it’s near-fucking impossible to find fireworks before October. I do know that there’s one shop in London I was desperate to go to because all they sold was fireworks and party supplies. Best job ever, my 6 year-old self had thought.

When I was told that we couldn’t buy fireworks here, I assumed it was just those pesky Roman Candles that were banned, but no, it was all of them. Despite the fact that children dance around catherine wheels, cakes and screech rockets, grown adults in the US can’t even be trusted to hold a damn sparkler without disintegrating.

Having grown up in the UK with all manner of public safety messages about fireworks, it was considered your own stupid fault if you turned up anywhere with a burn injury on November 6 – there was just no excuse. But piling into a car with my husband and a few of his friends to go buy fireworks in New Hampshire (where it’s legal) a few years ago didn’t make me feel any better just because I felt I was sufficiently trained. It also didn’t help that New Hampshire (unlike Massachusetts) allows supermarkets to sell booze (yep, can’t buy cider with your carrots in MA), so if we didn’t accidentally set ourselves on fire, we might die in an hilarious drink-driving accident (and then burn up faster due to our blood alcohol levels).

(Just kidding – our driver was a sober, good sport).

The fireworks shop was not the sort of megatastic fun-filled emporium I had imagined. It was nothing like the London-based shop let alone a fireworks, candy and puppy-dog store. It was a room stuffed with creaky, wooden-framed shelves which in turn were stuffed with boxes upon boxes of tackily-packaged fireworks. Also, it was on a random highway pit-stop next to a porn store. A really BIG porn store. I think that was some sort of porno emporium, because it was big enough to host peep shows.

"Mom, while you're gittin' the fireworks, I'll be in the porno store!"

While July 4th was an ironically enjoyable experience for an expat that year, subsequent years (and every single Guy Fawkes Night) has been a bit of a damp squid. Nothing to do, nothing going on. Complete polar opposite of what I’ve been used to. Part of that has been putting British-style holidays on a bit of a pedal stool for too long, and expecting to get the same experience on the same days in a completely different country. I tried looking up “Guy Fawkes USA” in Google and I did turn up a result of a lovely mini festival in Florida run by what is apparently the British American Chamber of Commerce (like I seriously needed another amazing reason to go to Florida?!), and something called Guy Fawkes Night with a bonfire in Rhode Island…in October. Every other result was pictures of people in masks that would confuse even Alan Moore himself. Whatever.

At least I wasn’t in Oban for it. Yikes.