Category Archives: History

Regarding Rabbits and Eggs: The Origins of Easter Traditions

Easter is almost upon us, and soon the legendary Easter Bunny will make its annual Sunday morning appearance, delivering chocolate, candy, and toys, and (of course) hiding Easter eggs. The Easter Bunny, or Easter Rabbit, is certainly the most well-known secular symbol of this Christian holiday. But how did this beloved animal become so deeply ingrained in the celebration of Easter?

 

As with many ancient legends, the origins of the Easter Bunny are primarily unknown. One theory suggests the Easter Bunny’s beginnings are with the ancient pagan festival of Eostre. This celebration honored the goddess of fertility, Eostre, whose animal symbol was the rabbit. Even separate from this particular festival, some sources note that the pagans historically viewed the rabbit as a “symbol of fertility and new life.”

 

No one really knows how this rabbit of antiquity morphed into the Easter Bunny we know and love today. Research suggests the legend of the Easter Bunny may have traveled to America with German immigrants in the 1700s. German traditions at the time upheld the tale of the egg-laying Osterhase or Oschter Haws (Easter hare) that appeared specifically for Easter. German children would create nests for this creature to lay its colored eggs. After German immigrants settled in Pennsylvania, the custom soon spread to other areas of the United States.

 

Like the Easter Bunny itself, colorful eggs may also originate from pagan traditions. Eggs were traditionally regarded as a symbol of new life and were consequently incorporated into many different festivals celebrating the coming of spring. With the advent of Christianity, the egg and its accompanying symbolism were given new meaning and came to “represent Jesus’ emergence from the tomb and resurrection.”

 

The custom of decorating eggs for Easter Sunday may have begun as far back as the thirteenth century. In addition to its status as a symbol of new life, the egg was also on a list of prohibited foods—thought to date back to the fifth century—that Christians could not eat during Lent, the forty days of fasting and penance before Easter. In preparation for Easter, Christians during the 1200s began to come together to decorate the eggs they could eat again that Sunday. While eggs are no longer banned for modern observances of Lent, the practice of decorating eggs has since become a permanent fixture in Easter celebrations.

 

Whatever its history may be, the myth of the Easter Bunny and its colorful eggs is fully ingrained in culture today. In fact, the Easter Bunny is such a mythical creature that even rabbit children are convinced their father could be this legendary figure! This scenario is exactly what occurs in Lorna Balian’s Humbug Rabbit: while Grandma prepares for Easter, five little rabbit children, who live below ground, learn the legend of the Easter Bunny for the first time and are quick to believe their own father is the culprit. Watch the two worlds meet in a joyous celebration of Easter!

Leprechaun Lore

St. Patrick’s Day is just around the corner, and with it comes the ever-popular figure from Irish mythology and folklore: the leprechaun. Though not connected with the historical figure of St. Patrick, or the original celebration of St. Patrick’s Day, the leprechaun is now a well-recognized symbol of Ireland and Irish culture.

 

The earliest origins of this mythical creature are thought to date back to before the arrival of the Celts in Ireland. Some scholars speculate that leprechauns were originally linked to “faerie forts” and “faerie rings,” small mounds of earth with unknown origins scattered throughout Ireland. At some point in history, the leprechaun morphed into its own entity, distinct from the other fairy beings of Irish folklore. These early leprechauns were characterized as little old men and were thought to be shoemakers or cobblers for these fairies.

 

Leprechauns Never Lie by Lorna Balian

The legend of the leprechaun soon came to describe these supernatural beings as “crotchety, solitary, yet mischievous creatures”—diminutive shoemakers who hid the gold they made from their labors in a pot at the end of a rainbow or scattered throughout the mountains and forests. Additionally, leprechauns were originally thought to wear red, and only in the twentieth century did the image of the leprechaun change to a figure in green, coinciding with a general shift in associating the color green with anything Irish.

 

Today, leprechauns in popular culture are perhaps not as cranky, yet they still maintain a reputation for mischief. In Lorna Balian’s Leprechauns Never Lie, Ninny Nanny and Gram are in a bad state—the rain barrel is empty, the potato field needs digging, and all they have for food is rainwater soup! Yet, Ninny Nanny is lazy, so she decides to catch a leprechaun and find out were he has hidden his pot of gold. But finding the leprechaun’s fortune turns out to be much more than Ninny Nanny and Gram bargained for. The leprechaun leads them on a merry chase throughout their farm—all with the best intentions!

 

If young readers would like to catch their own leprechaun, consider helping them set up a leprechaun trap to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. Construct a trap that lures the leprechaun onto a fake floor with spray-painted “gold,” or assemble a trap that uses a shoebox, a dowel, and (of course) gold to catch the leprechaun under the box.

 

Have fun building and decorating a trap, but don’t forget that leprechauns are mischievous and smart creatures, so you never know what to expect!

The Origins of Black History Month

February is Black History Month, a time to celebrate the essential role of African Americans in United States history and commemorate African American achievement. It is important to take a moment to understand how and why Black History Month came to be.

 

Widely regarded as the “Father of Black History,” African American historian Carter G. Woodson made it his life’s mission to remedy the dearth of information about black historical achievements and black contributions in the making of the United States as we know it today. The son of former slaves, Woodson felt a proper education was vital in understanding and upholding the right to freedom, noting: “If a race has no history, it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated.” In 1912, Woodson graduated from Harvard University with a PhD in history, the second African American ever to obtain a doctorate from the school. (The first was W.E.B. Du Bois, who graduated in 1895.)

Carter G. Woodson

 

Given his academic focus, Woodson was acutely aware of both the distinct lack of attention given to black history and the potential consequences this could hold. Consequently, in September 1915, he joined forces with Jesse E. Mooreland, a prominent minister at the time, to found the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH). Today, this organization is known as the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH).

 

In 1926, under Woodson’s guidance the ASNLH sponsored a national “Negro History Week” and chose the second week of February for the event, since the birthdays of both Abraham Lincoln (February 12) and Frederick Douglass (February 14) are celebrated during this time. Woodson, together with the ASNLH, printed and distributed photographs, books, historical bibliographies, and other literature that suggested different ways to celebrate, such as parades featuring notable African American figures, banquets, speeches, poetry readings, and lectures.

 

The week then began to gather momentum. US cities and towns held various celebrations, founded history clubs, and hosted events, while teachers enthusiastically gathered relevant materials and dedicated coursework to the occasion. Soon, the Departments of Education for various states like Delaware, North Carolina, and Virginia partnered with the ASNLH to promote the event.

 

Over the next few decades, mayors throughout the country established proclamations that recognized “Negro History Week” every year. In 1969, African American professors and members of the Black United Students group at Kent State University proposed extending the week to an entire month, and, in 1970, students and faculty celebrated the first Black History Month. Other colleges and universities soon followed suit.

 

On the fiftieth anniversary, President Gerald Ford officially recognized Black History Month in 1976, calling on American citizens to seize the “opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.” Since this announcement, every US president has put forth proclamations that officially endorse the ASALH’s annual theme for Black History Month.

 

Since 1928, each of these weeks—and later, months—has been oriented around a specific theme in order to even further direct the attention of the public. Such themes have ranged from “Civilization: A World Achievement” to “African Background Outlined” to “African Art, Music, Literature: A Valuable Cultural Experience.” ASALH provides the full list of these themes for further exploration. This year, the theme for Black History Month is Black Migrations, which, as the ASALH describes, specifically highlights the “movement of people of African descent to new destinations and subsequently to new social realities.”

 

Today, Black History Month is celebrated throughout the United States in schools and communities through lesson plans and classroom activities, history clubs, lectures, performances, museum exhibitions, and so much more. Starting in 1987, other countries also began celebrating Black History Month: Canada in February, and the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and Ireland in October. Be sure to research what events are being held in your area for Black History Month so you and your family can participate!

Remembering Kristallnacht

It has been 80 years since Kristallnacht (“Crystal Night”), yet today there are still eerie echoes of the horrific event. Kristallnacht was an organized attack against Jewish people in Nazi Germany that took place on November 9 and 10, 1938. Kristallnacht is also known as the Night of Broken Glass, named for the shattered glass from store windows and synagogues that blanketed the streets in the aftermath of the attacks. These attacks devastated the Jewish community, leaving over 7,000 Jewish businesses destroyed and nearly 100 Jews dead. More than 30,000 Jewish men were arrested and sent to concentration camps.

 

Although news of the brutal event was met by shock and outrage internationally, Kristallnacht was the culmination of anti-Semitic policies and beliefs in Nazi Germany. Prior to the rise of the Nazis, Jews in Germany generally had the same legal rights as all German citizens, although they were banned from university teaching positions. However, after Hitler came to power as chancellor in 1933, the Nazis began to broadcast propaganda that singled out German Jews as the reason for various misfortunes, such as Germany’s loss in World War I. This was quickly followed by anti-Semitic laws that systematically removed Jews’ rights. Jewish people could no longer be employed in civil service posts, including any teaching positions, not just at the university level. The Nazis also organized a boycott of Jewish businesses, and German businesses stopped serving Jews.

 

These policies culminated in the Nuremberg Race Laws in 1935. The Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honour forbade marriage and extramarital intercourse between Jews and Germans. It also prevented the employment of German women under 45 in Jewish households, under the assumption workers would be forced into such relations by Jewish men. Another policy, the Reich Citizenship Law, stated that only those with “German or kindred blood” were citizens of Germany; everyone else would be subjects of the state, stripped of basic rights. This law never defined “German or kindred blood,” but it did identify Jews as a race, rather than a religious community. Therefore, anyone who had a grandparent born into a Jewish religious community was considered Jewish, whether or not they identified as one. German allies such as Italy, Romania, and Slovakia passed similar laws. It is important to note that although these laws specifically targeted Jews, they also applied to black and Romani people.

 

The Nuremberg Race Laws allowed Hitler and the Nazis to spread the anti-Semitic sentiments that fueled their party in an organized manner. Many Jews sought to emigrate elsewhere, but faced difficulties both domestically (they were required to pay 90 percent of their wealth to Germany as tax for leaving) and internationally (other countries condemned Germany’s anti-Semitism, but refused to take in Jewish immigrants). The Nazis wanted to further escalate their anti-Semitic campaign; they just needed the right opportunity.

 

And then came the perfect scenario: the shooting of German diplomat Ernst vom Rath at the German embassy in Paris. The perpetrator was Herschel Grynszpan, a Polish-Jew refugee born in Germany. The shooting is commonly thought to be politically motivated, as anti-Semitism displaced the Grynszpan family from Germany, where they had lived for many years. Grynszpan made no attempt to escape arrest after the shooting. In custody, the French police found in Grynszpan’s pocket a postcard addressed to his parents that, in part, read, “. . . I could not do otherwise, may God forgive me, the heart bleeds when I hear of your tragedy and that of the 12,000 Jews. I must protest so that the whole world hears my protest, and that I will do. Forgive me. . . .” Grynszpan was taken into Nazi custody, but his scheduled trial was canceled and his fate remains unknown to this day.

 

In response, Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels ordered Nazi Stormtroopers to ignite violent riots disguised as German people protesting against Jews. Then, he sent instructions to the police and army to only interfere if the rioting threatened non-Jewish businesses. And thus, Kristallnacht commenced.

 

Kristallnacht has been largely regarded as a precursor to the “Final Solution” and the Holocaust. Although several countries severed diplomatic relations with Germany over the attacks, there were largely no consequences to the Nazis, enabling them to further destroy the Jewish community.

 

It is more important now than ever to teach tragic events like Kristallnacht so we as a society do not repeat the atrocities. By studying Kristallnacht and the Holocaust, we come to understand how these events were not isolated incidents, but rather a climax of variables such as authoritarianism, racism, dehumanization, and the neutral response of people not directly affected by such policies. It is only by becoming aware of the cause and effect of Kristallnacht, the Holocaust, and other similar events that we can work to prevent future brutal incidents.

 

Here at Star Bright Books, we aim to do our part to teach the lessons gleaned from the Holocaust by engaging readers with books about the time period from varying perspectives. Hidden Letters provides a look at life under Nazi rule. Philip “Flip” Slier, only 18 when he was sent to a concentration camp in Holland, wrote detailed letters to his parents almost every day, chronicling his life under German occupation. In Poland, German officer Wilm Hosenfeld lived his life in accordance to his own moral compass, despite the contradiction with the beliefs of Germany’s leadership. Defying the Nazis follows Hosenfeld’s life from his youth absorbed in nationalist propaganda to his maturity into a brave soul who helped rescue dozens of people from the Nazi regime.

 

Never again.

Thanksgiving: An Origin Story

Thanksgiving is just around the corner, and many people are already planning what to cook for their dinner spread. While feasting and giving thanks this season, consider the true origin of this long-standing tradition. The idea of Thanksgiving has changed quite a bit in the few hundred years it has been around, but how did it become the ingrained celebration it is today?

 

Modern-day Thanksgiving celebrations still heavily rely on the myth of the joyous first Thanksgiving feast between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag tribe. However, it is important to know the true context from which this holiday was born to help prevent further erasure of the injustices inflicted upon Native Americans. While this does not make up for the past, it is certainly a step toward recognizing the oppression indigenous tribes have faced, and still face today.

 

“The First Thanksgiving” by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, which depicts the romanticized version of the holiday. 

The common knowledge of the holiday depicts the first Thanksgiving as a harmonious meal between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag tribe in 1621. The Wampanoag extended aid to the Pilgrims, who were near starvation, by bringing them much-needed supplies and teaching them how to grow their own crops. To commemorate their alliance and an abundant harvest, the Pilgrims invited the Wampanoag to a three-day celebration.

 

This, however, is a misrepresentation of the true history behind Thanksgiving. Although the feast did take place, the situation was quite tense. The two groups were distrustful allies who partnered up out of necessity. The Wampanoag needed more people to defend against other tribes; the Pilgrims viewed the Wampanoag as uncivilized, but were at great risk of dying out without aid. An influx of colonizers and a change in leadership on both sides ended the temporary peace. After the relationship dissolved, the possibility of fostering similar peace treaties squickly soured.

 

Increasingly, historians are pointing to a much darker event as a precursor to Thanksgiving: the Mystic Massacre. The Mystic Massacre was the culmination of the Pequot War, a three-year struggle with colonists over the tribe’s land. In 1637, Puritan forces and their Native allies launched a surprise attack on the Pequot tribe as they celebrated their own Thanksgiving in present-day Mystic, Connecticut. Colonial forces surrounded the Pequot tribe’s enclosed settlement and set fire to it, effectively trapping and murdering the people inside, from warriors to children.

 

The Mystic Massacre and two similar bloodbaths decimated the Pequot tribe. Surviving members were either sold into slavery or assimilated into neighboring tribes. Massachusetts Bay Governor John Winthrop expressed gratitude for the successful destruction of the tribe, and thus every massacre thereafter was subsequently followed by feasting and giving thanks.

 

In 1789, under the new US constitution, George Washington issued the Thanksgiving Proclamation, but the holiday was only recognized in the New England states for many years. Sarah Josepha Hale, an author and editor most famous for writing “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” started a campaign to have Thanksgiving recognized as a national holiday in 1827 by sending letters to the president, starting with Zachary Taylor. Her efforts paid off with Abraham Lincoln. Seeing an opportunity to unify the country in the middle of the Civil War, Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863. Although the Civil War would not end for another two years, Thanksgiving entered the public consciousness as a moment when two opposing factions could peacefully come together.

 

Similar to many aspects of modern-day Thanksgiving celebrations, turkeys did not rise to prominence until fairly recently. This particular tradition also came about thanks to Sarah Josepha Hale. In 1854, Hale heard the journal of William Bradford, former governor of Plymouth Colony, had been rediscovered. She became fixated on one innocuous sentence about the Pilgrims hunting wild turkey in the fall. Eating turkey for Thanksgiving was never stated in Bradford’s account, but Hale began publishing recipes for roasted turkey in conjunction with the holiday and the pairing gained in popularity.

 

Turkeys are now synonymous with Thanksgiving, but what if the turkey you want to eat is your friend? In Sometimes It’s Turkey, Sometimes It’s Feathers, written by Lorna Balian and illustrated by Lecia Balian, Mrs. Gumm raises a turkey to eat on Thanksgiving, but her plans go awry. This twist on tradition will help children understand one part of modern-day Thanksgiving customs. Next time you and your family are at a Thanksgiving dinner with a roasted turkey on the table, take a moment to remember the long history of this holiday.

A Brief History of Trick or Treating

Trick or treat, smell my feet, give me something good to eat!

 

It’s almost Halloween, and that means the time for little gremlins to descend upon houses and ask for candy is near. As people flock to stores to stock up on fun-size chocolates, consider this: Halloween is the most commercially successful holiday in the United States after Christmas. Studies estimate that Americans spend $2.7 billion on candy for Halloween. And this number doesn’t account for costumes or decorations! How on earth did this very expensive, but much loved, tradition come to be?

 

The Celts, who lived in modern-day England, Ireland, and France as early as 1400 B.C., celebrated the festival of Samhain from October 31 to November 1 to mark the separation of the lighter half (summer) and darker half (winter) of the year. They believed that during this time, the boundaries between the human world and the spirit world weakened, allowing spirits to cross over into the human world. People often dressed up as spirits in order to blend in, and therefore avoid unpleasant encounters, with the actual spirits.

Humbug Witch

 

Then came Christianity. As Christianity spread, the church took these pagan traditions and layered in their own religious meaning in 1000 A.D. The new hybrid celebration not only replaced Samhain traditions, but was also a way for the church to encourage all classes to demonstrate Christian actions. Children and poor people would go around “guising,” or disguising themselves as representatives of the dead or the dead themselves, to houses of the rich and beg for food in exchange for prayers. A specific cake was given out called “soul cakes,” and thus this practice became known as “souling.”

 

In the nineteenth century, this practice shifted. Children still dressed up, but instead offered performances—such as singing, telling jokes, or other “tricks”—for food or money. This tradition made its way to America with the waves of immigrants, where it underwent another transformation into the more universally practiced “trick or treating.”

 

It is unknown from where exactly the term “trick or treat” came, but the first recorded mention was in a Canadian newspaper in 1927, and the name and the practice gained traction throughout Canada and the US. Instead of performing for treats, children pulled pranks or, in extreme cases, vandalized if they did not receive candy. As expected, this literal form of trick or treating was not popular with many adults and there was a lot of pushback against it.

 

Witches

There was a brief period during World War II when this tradition was put on hold because of sugar rations, but the celebration returned to full force after the war with less tricking and more treating. With the new economic stability of the country, it became more common and convenient to give out prepackaged candy, in contrast to the treats of money or nuts that were previously favored. And that is how candy companies came to capitalize upon on this particular holiday, much to the joy of all the munchkins getting free candy.

 

Trick or treat, feed my need, give me something good to read! Get your little goblin goobers in the Halloween mood with adventurous friends in Witches or teach them to cast spooky spells (kind of) with Humbug Witch. These magical tales will bewitch your little monsters with the power of storytelling, no sugar needed!

 

Happy trick or treating everyone!

Indigenous People’s Day

Traditionally, the second Monday of October has been celebrated in the United States as Columbus Day, commemorating the day Christopher Columbus stepped foot on North America. There has been much criticism of this holiday due to Columbus and other Europeans’ treatment of the Native American population, but it was not until the 1990s that this criticism really started to gain momentum.

 

Indigenous People’s Day is a counter-celebration to Columbus Day that celebrates Native Americans and their culture. Many US cities have chosen to celebrate Indigenous People’s Day in lieu of Columbus Day (including Cambridge, MA, where we are headquartered!). Indigenous People’s Day shows a wider scope of our history without glorifying a man who inflicted great cruelty on the native population while colonizing their lands. Instead, we acknowledge all the wrongs that Native Americans have suffered and honor their culture and traditions.

 

 

There is still quite a ways to go before we fully acknowledge and accept our country’s deep roots in colonization, but there are steps we can take to ensure that we are heading in the right direction. One of the most important things we can do is teach our children about diversity, inclusivity, and cultural awareness.

 

Loving Me and Cradle Me are great books to introduce babies to various Native American cultures. Loving Me depicts a native family caring for a child. The family is not just limited to parents; it is a multigenerational one, from great grandmother to big sister. Each family member actively participates in the loving and rearing of the children, an important aspect of Native American families.

 

 

Cradle Me showcases different cradleboards used to carry babies. These cradleboards have long been a part of many tribes’ tradition, and many still use them today. Cradleboards vary from tribe to tribe, but one common thread is that they are often decorated by the baby’s family as a way to show love for the newest member of the family.

 

Another way culture is expressed is through language. Many Native American languages are no longer spoken, but tribes across the country are fighting to save their native languages through technology or education of the next generation.

 

At Star Bright Books, we recognize the importance of preserving Native American languages and cultures. We carry Cradle Me and Loving Me in Navajo/English and Ojibwe/English so children can see themselves represented in books and read stories in their native tongues. For more information on these languages or the preservation efforts, please visit the First Nations Development Institute or Native Languages.

 

Celebrate Indigenous People’s Day this year on October 8!