The word "holiday" usually makes people think of big days like Christmas, Thanksgiving or Easter. However, September 17 is a link between holidays and US history: Constitution Day. Americans celebrate it that day because the US founders signed the Constituion on September 17, 1787--four years after the Treaty of Paris ended the US Revolution (aka War of Independence). (A Constitution is a written plan of government, an explanation of how a government will be set up, run, and what freedoms the people have.) Constitution Day, which celebrates American liberty as free people, also follows just six days after 9/11, a day inflicted on the US by terrorists who hated American freedom.
September 17, 1987 was a big day in the USA--the bicentennial of the signing. That was also a big time in my personal life; my first month teaching full time. As a newly-minted history teacher just out of William and Mary and starting my career teaching in Richmond, Virginia, I thought it was important to teach my 11th grade US history students about that bicentennial event. The US Supreme Court judges, President Reagan and some other government leaders were on TV that day to mark the celebration. Wanting my students to be informed, I let them watch the ceremony during class. I remember a few students being interested, but I also remember many putting their heads on their desks to sleep, as I walked around trying to get them to pay attention. Looking back, I see that as a metaphor for our country. We Americans like to enjoy the freedoms our Constitution gives us, but not enough care to pay attention let alone fight to keep those freedoms. (Many teachers quit in the first three years of teaching, and I can see why. I am thankful I did not let those students' apathy discourage me; I have stuck with teaching ever since and it's been a fabulous career working with many fantastic students and families.)
The US Revolutionary War was fought from 1775-1783. On July 4, 1776, the US Congress approved the final language of the Declaration of Independence. That is why July 4th is considered "America's birthday." However, the Declaration just explained that Americans wanted to be free from English rule, and why. It also gave the world the name "The United States of America." It did not include a plan for government. Actually, the plan of government that the Americans used during the Revolutionary War was called the Articles of Confederation. It was a weak system of government. In order to pass a law or raise taxes, all 13 states had to agree--something almost impossible to do, since each state had a distinct identity, communication was slow, and there was very little direct contact among the states. In those early years, the USA was almost more like 13 little, independent countries, that just worked together when it suited them.
By the mid-1780's, many founders saw the need for a stronger plan of government. England had been defeated and had granted the US their independence by 1783, but the states had a hard time working together.
However, many other American leaders feared a stronger federal (national) government too. They thought: "we just fought an eight-year war to be free from the tyranny of the English king. A strong Constitution might make the states (and thus the people) enslaved to a NEW tyranny-- a strong federal government!" Patrick Henry of Virginia was a famous example of such a person. When he heard that there was a meeting to create a new Constitution, which he thought would make the national government too strong and thus make the states too weak, he wrote: "I smell a rat."
1787 Meeting in Philadelphia:
A group of founders met in Philadephia, Pennsylvania in the summer of 1787 to improve or strengthen the Articles of Confederation. Instead, they created an entirely new plan! Interestingly, those men met in Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania...the same building that the founders met in 11 years earlier -- in 1776 -- to debate and write the Declaration of Independence. This makes Independence Hall one of the most famous buildings in the US and the bell that was in its tower, the Liberty Bell, a treasured icon of freedom. (Many are surprised to know there is a Bible verse carved on the Liberty Bell from Leviticus 25:10: "Proclaim Liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof." This is one more example of the huge role that the Bible and and the Jewish and Christian religions have played in the founding of the USA. Many do not want you to know this today, but it is true.)
Of those who met in Philadelphia that summer, James Madison of Virginia is considered among the most important. He arrived in the city armed with some specific ideas he wanted to see included in the new document and worked hard to see it accomplished, so he is called "The Father of the Constitution." The framers also voted to make George Washington of Virginia the president of the meeting. As the respected general who had led the American forces to victory over the British, his leadership gave immediate credibility to the convention. The crucial roles of Madison and Washington show how Virginia plays a key position in the birth of American civilization and human liberty. Also, since DreyerCoaching.com is based in Virginia, when you study English with us, you also learn more about US history and thinking.
The leaders who met in Independence Hall that long, hot summer had a hard time reaching agreements. They came from states as far north as New Hampshire or as far south as Georgia. Some owned slaves and some did not. Some were from big states like Virginia and some were from tiny states like Delaware. Simply put, they had many different views. Many times it seemed their meeting would end in failure, without their creating a new government plan. One of the biggest conflicts was over the issue of representation. That is, how would they decide which states got how much power? For example, the states with large or small populations has very different ideas about how power should be spread out. For example, large states like Virginia wanted power to be based on population. That is, the more people they had, the more power they would have in the government. This was called the "Virginia Plan." In contrast, small states were afraid of being "gobbled up" by the big states and they wanted each state to have equal power. This was called the "Connecticut Plan." For awhile it seemed the discussion would break down. Finally, the framers created the "Great Compromise." The solution? Congress would have two houses. The House of Representatives would have seats based on population, which made big states happy. Big states like Virginia and New York would have more seats and thus more votes. In contrast, the Senate would give each state the same number of seats, and thus power, so that made the small states feel safe in the new system, that they could defend their interests. This is a wonderful example of how history influences the present: the Congress still has two houses set up this way, till today!
Another concern of the framers was: how to keep the new government from becoming a dictatorship? They had just fought a long war to be free. They knew from studying history, those in power love power and want to keep it. So, the founders thought of human nature. They reasoned, since human nature makes people selfish and desire power, then the way to prevent the government from becoming a dictatorship is to spread out the power, so no one person or group has all the authority. So, they created a government based on three branches, where each has some power to "check," or control, the others. These closely-related ideas are called "Checks and Balances" and "Separation of Powers."
The new Constitution was signed on September 17, 1787, so that is why this date is now called Constitution Day. However, the Constitution did not go into effect right away. The founders required that nine of the original 13 colonies would have to approve, or ratify, the new document before it went into effect. This was to guarantee that a majority of states agreed to the new plan. Tiny Delaware, believing they would be safer if included in a strong Union, was the first to ratify the document. This is why today Delaware's licence plates say "The First State." (For dates each state ratified the Constitution click here.)
Many do not know this now, but there were FIERY arguments among Americans who supported or opposed the new Constitution. Those in favor were called "Federalists" while those opposed were called "Anti-Federalists." In general, wealthy, urban areas were pro-federalist while poorer, rural areas were anti-federalist.
The ninth state to ratify the Constitution was tiny New Hampshire, so the Constitution was technically approved. However, the two biggest states at that time-- Virginia and New York-- had not approved it yet, thus making the new plan's survival unlikely. Plus, not only were Virginia and New York big in population, they were big in areas--stretching from the Atlantic coast to the Appalachian Mountains. So, while these two "giants" were not yet onboard, the nine states of the United States were not even contiguous; that means, they did not even touch each other, so the nation's long-term chances looked slim. It was not till later that summer when Virginia and New York voted to join, the the Constitution appear to be on a strong foundation. (This is one more example of the important role that Virginia has played in US history. And since DreyerCoaching.com is based in Virginia, not only do you learn English here, but you learn about US history, life and culture too!)
(Later, in 1860 and 1861, this ratification process was cited by the leaders of the 11 Southern states who voted to seceed, or leave, the Union. Their reasoning was: "Some eighty years ago, our grandfathers debated and voted to let our state join the USA. Now, we the grandsons are also free to debate and vote to LEAVE the Union. In other words, if our state was free to voluntarily join 80-some years ago, we are free to voluntarily LEAVE now." Newly-elected President Lincoln did not see it that way, and the Civil War began in April 1861.)
The Bill of Rights:
So, some American leaders liked this new Constitution while others did not. Later, to get more Americans to agree to support the new plan of government, there was another compromise: Add a Bill of Rights. The Bill of Rights, which became the first ten amendments to the Constitution, guarantee personal freedoms such as freedom of religion, freedom of the press, freedom of speech, etc. (Read the Bill of Rights here.) The Bill of Rights was written after the Constitution, as a separate document. However, since it was the first part added to the Constitution and made it more popular, the Bill of Rights is seen as a critically-important part of the Constitution. (Source) Many do not know this today, but the 10th Amendment reads: "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people." This means several things. For one, the Constitution was designed to be LIMITED in nature. In other words, unless it specifically grants a power ot the federal government, all other authority rests with the states and the people. Also, it shows the supremacy of the states. (source) (Many tell you that slavery was the main cause of the US Civil War in 1861, but that is not true. Lincoln allowed slavery to continue in Union states such as Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky and Missouri for the whole war. A more accurate explanation for the cause of the Civil War was: who would win the tug of war of power: the states or federal government?) The Union victory over the South at Appomattox, Virginia in 1865 sealed the federal goverment as supreme over the states, and since the New Deal of the 1930's, this trend has accelerated.)
Today, it is crucial that we understand the role of the US Constitution. The USA is not a perfect country by any means--far from it. However, we should know that the US Constitution, dating to 1787, is the longest-used Constitution of any country in the world today!
The Constitution, Bill of Rights, Declaration of Independence and many other crucial documents are on display in the National Archives in Washington D.C.
Some threats to the Constitution and our liberties today:
- Twisting the language: Many like to call the Constitution "a living and breathing document." That sounds good, and yes, the Constitution CAN and DOES change to meet changing times. Specifically, amendments can be added to address specific needs. For example, later amendments have banned slavery, given women the right to vote, etc. However, some people twist that phrase into something like: The Constitution can be interpreted into whatever we want it to mean. Some even say, "The Constitution means whatever the judges say it means, or the judges WANT it to say." (source) In contrast, "Originalists" are those who insist one must read and interepret the Constitution based on what the founders intended, and on the original intent of the document.
- Out-of-Control Presidency: Also, over the years, the role of the US President has grown very large, probably far larger than the framers intended. If you read the Constituion for yourself, you will see that Article I establishes a legislative branch, with two houses of Congress. Article I is the longest and most-detailed part of the Constitution. Since the text setting up Congress comes first and has the most information, most believe that the founders wanted Congress to be the most powerful of the branches. In contrast, the president is not discussed till Article II, and the judicial branch comes in Article III. As I write this on Constitution Day 2018, the US "trade war" with China and many other countries is in the news. However, the Constitution says that CONGRESS has the power "to regulate commerce with foreign nations." It is not President Trump's authority to oversee trade, but Congress' job! (source) A few years President Obama declared his "DREAMERS" act to legalize some people in the US illegally, but that was also not in his jurisdiction. It is the job of Congress to write immigration law, not the president's to just declare it. (source) The other night while driving I was listening to some radio news, and the "talking heads" were lamenting: "Why won't Congress do its Constitutional duty and stand up to President Trump?" I remember thinking: why complain about it now? Congress has been passive and letting presidents have way too much power for most of my lifetime--why are you waking up to this problem only now?
- "Hate Speech": A tricky thing about "hate speech" is...what is it? And who decides what "hate speech" is? Beginning in the 1990's and getting stronger and stronger, much "free speech" is being stifled because someone somewhere might label it "hate speech." Nowadays, it seems many think that if you say or write something that might "offend" one person or make one person "feel uncomfortable," then you should not be able to say it. This thinking is especially true on many college campuses, which is ironic, because a university should be a place to argue and debate MORE ideas, not fewer. The group FIRE works hard to defend free speech, especially on campuses.
America's New Holiday
"Holidays." The word brings happy images to most people. Holidays include Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving, Chinese New Year, and so many more. But in the USA, September 11, also called 9/11, is a sad holiday, now called "Patriot Day."
Also, most Americans born before the early 1990's remember where they were on the morning of September 11, 2001, when they heard of the news of the terrible terrorist attacks.
I remember that day well. After a hot Virginia summer, that Tuesday morning was suddenly cool and comfortable, with a beautiful clear, blue sky. I rode my bike that morning like normal to my job teaching 9th grade high school history, and the ride was refreshing and pleasant.
That year my planning period was first period in the morning, so as the 11th grade history teacher was lecturing in the classroom, I went back to our department office so I could do some lesson planning. The phone rang, and it was the wife of the 11th grade teacher.
"Is Dave there?" she asked.
"Yes, but he's teaching next door right now-- can I take a message?" I asked.
She responded: "Yes, tell him I just heard the news that a plane crashed into a building in New York City just now." As I remember, I think she also suggested we turn on the TV to watch the news ourselves.
I told her I would pass the news on to him and hung up. Hearing that news, I imagined such a crash as being an accident; I could not fathom someone actually flying a plane into a building to kill people!
I went into the classroom and apologized for interrupting, but told the teacher his wife had just called and wanted me to tell him about the plane crash. As I remember, the teacher asked the class for a moment of silence, then we turned on the TV. The crash had occured at 8:46 a.m. Eastern Time, (Virginia, Washington D.C. and New York are in the same time zone), so we all sat in stunned, silent disbelief to see smoke pouring from the side of the North Tower of the World Trade Center in downtown New York. At that point, I was still thinking, "this must have been some terrible accident." I even remember thinking: "The sky is a clear blue up there in New York, just like here in Roanoke. How could a plane fly into a building? The visibility is excellent!"
There are two English idioms, "right out of the blue" or "a bolt from the blue," that both refer to a total shock, the same way a person would never expect to see a bolt of lightning come from a clear, blue sky. That is how we all felt that morning: the attack was truly "right out of the blue," a surprise plane crash on a clear day with excellent visibility.
Then at 9:03, as we all stared at the TV, we saw a second jet crash into the South Tower, setting off a tremendous fireball! The TV news reporters started yammering in shock, as surprised as the rest of us. That was when we all knew this was no "accident" -- we were under a deliberate attack! Even more shocked, we all sat, glued to the TV.
Then, the news broke in: a jet had crashed at the Pentagon! Soon we saw a split screen on the TV: one side showed smoke pouring out from both World Trade Center (WTC) towers, and the other side showed smoke billowing from the Pentagon! The terrorists had not only hit the US, they had also hit our state of Virginia!
(In the years since, when discussing the events of 9/11, I often ask my students, "What places were hit on 9/11?" Everyone knows that New York was a target, but many others also answer "Washington D.C." But that is wrong. The Pentagon is in Virginia. Since it is the main building for the Defense Department, a major part of the US government, most people associate it with Washington. However, the Pentagon is on the south side of the Potomac River, right across from the famous Jefferson Memorial, so it is actually on Virginia soil.)
Later, as we all sat in shocked disbelief, other rumors began to spread. "Planes hit Washington D.C.!" "Planes are falling down in other places too!" By late morning we heard that a jet plane had crashed somewhere in Pennsylvania.
At some point during the day, the school superintendent sent out the order: ALL TV's in all the schools must be turned off. All of us, students and teachers alike, were upset, because we wanted to know what was happening, plus we thought we NEEDED to know. Also, we knew history was happening that day. Yet, we needed to obey the orders, so the TV's went off. (It may sound crazy to young people who grew up in a world where wifi is everywhere and cell phones are like "mini-computers," but as recently as 2001, the TV was still a main source of information, so when the TV went off, our main source of news in the classroom was what we could get on the radio--a technology from the 1920's!) Needless to say, all we could think about and talk about the rest of the day were the horrific attacks we had just seen.
(The next day we found out why the superintendent had ordered all TV's off-- it turns out, some teachers of kindergarten and first grade classes -- unbelievably -- had their TV's on too and were letting the small children watch those terrible images. So, to protect the younger children, all TV's were to be shut off.)
President George W. Bush
That morning, President George W. Bush had been in the US state of Florida, reading books to young children. That night on the news we saw images of him when an aide whispered to him about the attacks, and he quickly left the room. then back to his airplane, Air Force One. Read here to find out more about what President Bush did and where he went on that fateful day. Even his advisors thought the first attack might have been an accident, and it was only when the second plane hit that they realized it had been terrorism. His advisers' first concern was the president's safety and they thought him returning to Washington could put him at risk. Still, against his advisers' wishes, Bush insisted he go back to White House by that evening.
On the night of 9/11, President Bush spoke to the nation on TV, and in his speech he recited the 23rd Psalm from the Bible. In other words, in the early days of the 21st century, when America was reeling from a brutal shock, President Bush reached back 3,000 years to quote a Psalm from the Jewish King David. (Recently Chinese students have asked me about the role of God, Christianity and the Bible in the U.S. government. The role is huge and historic, too much to address here, but Bush quoting from the Bible that night, in America's darkest hour, shows the respected role the Bible holds in American public life.)
One of the first things Bush did after the attacks was demand that ALL non-military planes be grounded, for days. In those early hours, with plane after plane crashing, no one knew how many more hijakers were out there, so to reduce the risk, all planes landed. DreyerCoaching.com team teacher Mr. Woodson and his wife were flying from the US to Taipei, Taiwan that day, and got stuck in the US state of Michigan for four days. Even President George Bush Senior, George W. Bush's father, was flying that day and was grounded mid-trip. All across America, as flights were stopped for four days, people were scrambling to rent cars or get on buses or trains to get to their destinations.
Read Mr. Woodson's first-hand account here in his own words. (Note: In history studies, a "secondary source" comes from an author writing about an event that he or she learned about but did not observe personally. For example, books written today about Abraham Lincoln are secondary sources. In contrast, a "primary source" comes from an author writing about an event that he or she saw or experienced first-hand. Examples include diaries, letters, records, and photographs. Mr. Woodson's account below, and my personal observations in this post, are all primary sources, and these are of special value in the study of history.)
Sept. 11th, 2001 was the day we were to leave Virginia for Taiwan where I planned to work for several years as a university English teacher. My wife, 7 yr. old daughter, and I flew out of Richmond around 8:30 that morning, heading for Detroit where we were to change to our flight from the U.S. to Asia. Thankfully, the one and a half hour flight was uneventful, and we landed safely in Detroit around 10 a.m. When the plane came to a stop at the gate where we were to disembark, the pilot calmly made this short announcement, "There's been some terrorist activity; it's going to be an interesting day."
Even years later, I still remember the odd but reassuring feeling to be in my home in Roanoke, Virgina, at night, and again hear planes in the sky, after days of silence. It's funny how so many "little things" of life we actually miss, when they are gone.
United Flight 93
Most of the attention on 9/11 was on the twin towers of the WTC, with somewhat less attention on the Pentagon. After all, most of the dead were in New York. Of all four crashes, the least attention had been placed on the last, mainly because that plane crashed into an empty field. All on board were killed, but at least none on the ground were. Why? In the days and weeks after the attacks, we began to learn more.
On 9/11, there were 19 hijackers-- but the original terrorist plot had called for 20. As it turned out, US intelligence had flagged one hijacker as dangerous and he was not allowed on the plane. (Many have since asked, why were the other 19 allowed to board? How can we make the US more secure against future attacks?) As it turned out, the one hijacker kept off a flight was kept off of Flight 93. So, of the four planes, that one only had four hijackers onboard, not five. Plus, since Flight 93 was the last one to be hijacked, the passengers had already heard of the previous three crashes. (In all the years before 9/11, the common wisdom about hijackers was: Be calm, and do what they say. The idea was, people hijack planes to make some statement or get some political goal, so just be calm and you'll eventually be released. This is why, on the first three hijacked flights, we do not know of anybody trying to fight back. Plus, with five armed terrorists aboard, the passengers were probably too petrified to move, let alone try to fight back.) 9/11 was the first time the world was introduced to SUICIDAL hijackers who wanted to die!) Imagine the horror those passengers experienced when they got cell phone calls and messages about planes being taken over then flown into the WTC and Pentagon. Then, imagine THEIR horror when THEIR plane was hijacked over Ohio and it started flying back east!
Todd Beamer was a 32-year-old from Michigan, flying on Flight 93 that day. When he got the awful news of the other attacks, and the terrorists had taken over his plane, he tried to call his wife and tell her he loved her, but because it was so early, he could not reach her. (In fact, since the four planes were all flying early in the morning from the East Coast to the West Coast, it was about 6 a.m. on the West Coast, so many passengers tried to call home in their last moments but only got to leave messages on their answering machines!) When Beamer, a white male, could not reach his wife, he spoke with the phone operator, Lisa Jefferson, a black woman. Beamer and Jefferson, who did not know each other, prayed the Lord's Prayer together. Both were Christians and Americans, which shows that their belief in Jesus and identity as Americans is greater than gender or skin color. You can read Jefferson's inspirational story here.
After they prayed together, Todd Beamer famously said "Let's Roll" as a few other courageous passengers and he rose up and fought the hijackers. Had their been the full five terrorists onboard, they would have had the advantage, but with only four, that gave the passengers a fighting chance. The plane weaved in the sky as both sides fought for control. Sadly, the passengers lost because, unlike the terrorists, they had no weapons. But, by going after the cockpit, the passengers forced the terrorists to ditch the plane over an empty field, thus saving their desired target-- the U.S Capitol building. As AWFUL as 9/11 was-- and it was awful-- it would have been FAR WORSE if the fourth plane had hit the U.S Capitol! That building, with its huge dome on an exposed hill in Washington, D.C, was a sitting duck. The U.S. Capitol dome, which was half-completed when Abraham Lincoln became president in 1861, is one of America's most iconic structures.
It is interesting and ironic. With all the first responders going in to help and the massive US military response after 9/11, the first counter-attack against terrorism on 9/11 was NOT done by the police, the army, the air force, or any armed force. It was not organized by any general or police chief. The FIRST counter-attack was done by brave, unarmed, "normal" people who happened to be traveling on Flight 93 that day! An important part of the traditional "American mindset" is "taking action" and "doing what you need to do." Those people on Flight 93 were heroes who gave their lives by fighting back, and saving the U.S. Capitol and hundreds if not thousands of other lives on the ground. (See the Flight 93 flight map here.)
The terrorists, though they had twisted thinking, had clear symbolism with their targets. The twin towers of the WTC, near Wall Street and the US stock market, represent America's economy and free market. The Pentagon, main office of the Defense Deparement, represents America's military and ability to defend freedom. Lastly, the Capitol, home to the U.S. Congress (the House of Representatives and Senate), represents our free and democratic way of government. The terrorists were also diabolical in their choice of flights to take over. All four began on the East Coast and were to fly to California; so, all four were full of the maximum amount of jet fuel which would make the biggest and most deadly fireballs possible.
Today there is a Flight 93 Memorial, a National Park unit, in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. President Trump spoke there on 9-11-2018. Watch the full speech here. President Trump in his speech referred to "radical Islamic terrorism" as being the force behind the attacks, which of course is the case. In contrast, President Obama would never utter those words together.
- In the days and even weeks after 9/11, most Americans just stayed home after work or school, staring at the TV news, hardly able to take it in. The news kept running images from that horrific day and interviewing people who had lived through it. Sunday church attendance nationwide went way up, for awhile.
- Just three days after the attack, President Bush went to "Ground Zero" in New York, where the twin towers had stood, and gave his now-famous "bullhorn speech," where he thanked the first responders and called for American resolve. It was an iconic scene and moment.
- Later, with so many people just staying at home, President Bush urged Americans to go out to eat and to go on vacation. Stimulate the economy! Trying to support the president and my country, I took my family out to an Italian restaurant for dinner a few days after 9/11. I remember it was half-empty, but we tried to do our part. That was ironic too: in wars past, such as WW II, it was patriotic to save and NOT buy things, but this time it was patriotic to spend money and buy things! I remember big yellow signs by some motels reading "THANKS FOR TRAVELING."
- Since the WTC was right next to Wall Street, this area of lower New York City is America's financial capital. Since everyone was in shock that day and to prevent a market collapse, the US Stock Market did not open on 9-11-2001, and in fact remained closed until September 17--the longest closure since 1933, in the depths of the Great Depression! When the stock market reopened, it dropped by 7.1%, the biggest one-day loss in history. When the markets closed that Friday, stocks had dropped over 14% just that week! (source)
- Furthermore, the entire U.S. tourism industry suffered -- especially Hawaii, because you have to fly to get there. It took months for flights to get back to full-booking again. After all that had happened, many people were afraid to get on a plane, and some still are!
- Watching the attacks that day--first the billowing smoke and fire, then the horror of seeing both skyscrapers collapse--we were wondering: how many people are trapped inside?! Tragically, many jumped to their deaths rather than burn to death inside. The first death estimates were around 6,000, considering how many people would normally be at work during office hours in those two skyscrapers. The eventual death count for the day was 2,977 killed--the vast majority (2,753) was killed in the WTC, but also 184 were killed inside the Pentagon, and all passengers and crew aboard all four planes perished too. (source). (In contrast, 2,335 US military personnel were killed when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941.) The terrorists wanted it to be an "attack on America," which it was, but it was also an attack on the WORLD, when you consider that 27 killed were citizens of other countries, and countless others had either dual-citizenship or had been born overseas but had since gotten US citizenship (source). Sadly, the death toll has gone up since then, because many people later got cancer or other diseases from their exposure to harmful chemicals and smoke that day. Many still suffer from health problems from 9/11.
- As people discussed the attack, some told stories of people they knew who had been involved. I distinctly remember one day while I was seated in the hallway of our high school building, on hall duty. One woman I worked with--she was involved with gifted eductation in our school system--stopped by to chat. While discussing 9/11, she told me she had lost a niece in the attack on the Pentagon. I was stunned. She told me her niece had been a secretary in the Pentagon, where she prepared reports and made coffee for the generals and staff. Her office had been at the spot where the third plane had crashed, killing her instantly. My friend continued, adding that of course her family was heartbroken, but that "she was ready to go." My friend explained that her niece had been a strong Christian and knew Jesus Christ as her Lord and Savior, and so her family knew she was in "a better place," and that gave them tremendous comfort.
- The woman I co-taught with that year (She taught English while I taught history) is married to a firefighter. She told me that although 9/11 had shocked the whole nation, her husband and all firefighters were especially torn up. That was because first responders (police and firefighters) paid a very heavy price that day; many died rescuing others. She explained: "Did you see all the news? While everyone else was running AWAY from the danger, to be safe, all the first responders were running TO the danger, to try to help as many people as they could." Those first responders were among the many heroes of that day.
- I have been a teacher since 1987, and a major teachers' union, the National Education Association (NEA) often issues lesson plans and ways for teachers to discuss and approach certain issues in classrooms. The NEA has a strong left-wing political bias, and they shocked many people when, in the year after the 9/11 attacks, they told teachers they should not "assign blame" for the attacks. Many thought: that's crazy! Are we supposed to believe the attacks "just happened," they way you might teach about an earthquake or tornado? The attacks were a deliberate act; here are the 19 hijackers, the faces of hatred.
- As soon as flights resumed after 9/11, airport security was heightened. Passengers were told to report to airports much earlier, to allow for the longer and more thorough screenings. Most passengers do not like the annoyance but realize it is now necessary. Overall border security went way up too. I remember pre-9/11, a whole carload of people could cross the border between the US and Canada if just the driver only showed a driver's license. That was just one example of the long-standing friendship between our two countries. No more. Now, each person needs an actual passport. As part of heightened security, President Bush and Congress created a new government agency: the Department of Homeland Security
- Every year since 2001, there have been annual observances in New York City, at the Pentagon, and in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
- September 11 is now a new holiday: Patriot Day. (Note: do NOT confuse this with Patriots' Day. That is a state holiday in Massachusetts and some other parts of New England, on the third Monday in April, to remember the April 19, 1775 battles between American "minutemen" and the British soldiers going to take away American guns and gunpowder. Those first fights at Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts, are seen as the beginning of the American Revolution, or War of Independence.)
- It may seem odd, but within just a few years after 9/11, the news media largely stopped showing images of the massive fireballs from the twin towers. In their annual coverage, they show images of presidents giving speeches or people crying or placing flowers by a monument, but the fireball image--the iconic scene from that day--is noticeably absent. Do not take my word for it. Watch your own 9/11 coverage and decide for yourself. Why do you think that is? I have my ideas, but I invite you to think over it and come to your own conclusion. (Photograph by Spencer Platt-- source)
- On 9/11 now, many people fly US flags, even at their home, and many flags are at half-staff.
- Because of the attacks, many people chose to move away from New York City because they thought it was going to be too dangerous of a target in the future. In fact, many people left other big cities too, like Chicago, Los Angeles and others, for the same reason. (Of course, far more stayed than moved away.) Small world: just today I was speaking on the phone with a man I had never met before. We were chatting and he mentioned he had moved to Southwest Virginia in 2002 from New York City, and I asked him what had led to that change. He told me, "After 9/11, I decided I wanted to live in a safer area, so we moved to Bedford County and we live on Smith Mountain Lake. We raised our family here." When I asked him how he felt about the move, he said he had made the right choice. "The people here are kind and gracious, and I have been to many places in my life, and this area is by far my favorite." So as we wrap up this post about 9/11, it is a blessing to finish with the story of a man for whom that catastrophe led to a new place of residence and a whole new way of life.
For another account of that fateful September 11, read this blog.
This post is written and dedicated to the 9/11 victims and their families. Reflect and Remember.
The 4th of July!
It's America's birthday!
The United States of America counts its birth from July 4, 1776.
Why is that a special day?
From the many years from 1607, when the English created their first permanent colony in the New World at Jamestown, Virginia, until 1776, England controlled most of the eastern part of North America. Called the 13 colonies, these colonies, from Georgia in the South to New Hampshire in the North, took their orders from London. The first settlers who came from England to live in America brought their culture, Christian religion, and of course language, with them. That's why the USA is an English-speaking country today, and it explains why you are reading this blog in English right now! (See how history influences the present?) Anyway, those early settlers thought of themselves as Englishmen living in America...but still Englishmen! At that time, the decision to move from Europe to America was nearly irreversible. Once you got on the ship, you knew you would probably never go back to Europe again. So, eventually those first English settlers married, had children, and died in America. Their children almost never traveled to Europe, but because they had heard their parents talk about English often, they too thought of themselves as Englishmen...living in America. But over the years and decades, something happened. It was gradual, not sudden, but with each passing generation, the mindset slowly changed. More and more, many of the people of European descent in America no longer thought of themselves as English, or Germans, French, or Dutch, etc....but rather as something new: Americans.
So, with the passing of the years, England and the Americans slowly drifted apart. Yes, both spoke English and ships regularly traveled back and forth acros the ocean, but since America was so far from England, and it took months for ships to travel that far, and since Americans had to solve their own urgent problems like Indian attacks, building roads, and running schools, etc., the Americans slowly began to take more responsibility for their own lives and did not look to England for as much protection and guidance.
So, by the 1760s and 1770s, when the English King George III kept putting more controls and taxes on the American colonists, there was more and more American anger!
At first the anger was in the forms of protests, letter-writing, etc., but eventually it became violent, like in the Boston massacre and finally open fighting took place at Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts, on April 19, 1775. That was called "The shot heard round the world." See the video! War had begun between American citizens and English soldiers.
But even though war had begun, the 13 colonies still belonged to England! For that reason, delegates from the 13 colonies met in what is now called Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to discuss possible independence. The debates went back and forth for weeks. Finally, the delegates agreet to have a team of five members write a Declaration of Independence, claiming that the United States of America is an independent country, and explaining why we had the right to break away from England. The main author of the Declaration of Independence was Thomas Jefferson of Virginia. You can read the Declaration of Independence here. You may notice that the Declaration has many references to God.
In fact, the delegates voted for independence on July 2, but since they did not vote to accept the Declaration of Independence until July 4th, that day is now considered the USA national day. Read more about it from History.com.
This video explains why we have fireworks on July 4th!
Even though the delegates voted for Independence, King George III of England did not care. He ordered armies and fleets to America, to crush the rebellion. This led to about five more years of warfare, called the American Revolution or the War of Independence. The main American general of that war was George Washington, of Virginia, and the final main battle was Yorktown, Virginia, in 1781. Do you see the Role of Virginia in USA history?! So when you study with DreyerCoaching.com, based in the US state of Virginia, not only do you learn more about English, but you learn more about American culture, history, and thinking too!
How do Americans celebrate the 4th of July today?
July 4 is a national holiday. This means there is no mail, and all banks, schools and government offices are closed. Many private businesses are closed too. Since many people have the day off from work, they are able to spend the time with their family and friends. Here are some of the many things Americans do to celebrate that day.
- Because it's summer, many people go to WATER-- pools, rivers, lakes, or beaches! (See our family's lake cook-out to the right; note the grill at back.)
- put US flags or bunting out
- wear red, white and blue clothing or hats
- be thankful for our freedoms. In English we have a saying, "Freedom is not free." The USA is independent, and has remained so for over 200 years, because of the brave soldiers who first won and later defended those liberties. Sometimes it's easy to focus on the food and fun but forget the meaning, and this cartoon reminds us that LIBERTY is the meaning of the day.
- watch fireworks at night. It's usually hot during the day on July 4th in much of the USA, so it feels great to go out at night, after it gets dark and cool, spread out a blanket on the ground with your family and friends, and look up at the sky and watch the great fireworks. Cities, towns, businesses, and churches across the USA sponsor firework shows at night.
Here is a video from the July 4th fireworks and music in Washington, DC.
Learn more about July 4th:
ELCivics.com (intermediate level)
Voice of America (advanced level)
This day in history (advanced level)
Thanks for reading! I hope this gives you a better understanding of how most Americans celebrate our national day, July 4. Do you want to improve your English or understanding of life in the USA? Contact me today to find out how to join an online English class, right to your home or office, anywhere in the world! Find out how our classes run by reading this.
In the United States, we celebrate Memorial Day. It falls on the last Monday of May, so it will be May 28 in 2018. On Memorial Day, we remember all the soldiers who have died while fighting for our country. People wave flags and hang them from their porch. Many people hang their flag at half-mast on that day, to honor the fallen. (Below see a flag at half mast at a popular fast food restaurant, Chick-fil-A, to honor the loss of First Lady Barbara Bush.) We also have Veterans Day, in November. Veterans Day honors everyone who has ever served in the United States military, whether they survived battle or not. However, Memorial Day specifically honors those who have died while serving their country in the US military.
Because Memorial Day is a national holiday and it falls on Monday, a week day, many businesses and activities are closed. (In the USA, we have about a half-dozen holidays that always fall on a Monday. This is so we Americans can have more beloved "three-day weekends," when we get a break from Friday afternoon till Tuesday.) As with many other holidays, including Christmas and Easter, the initial purpose of the holiday has been lost, or made less important, over the years. For example, Memorial Day is thought of as the unofficial start of the summer. Some schools end their year the Friday before Memorial Day. Outdoor pools open on Memorial Day, and since the weather is usually warm by late May, many people go to a nearby lake, river, or have a cook-out that weekend. Stores have Memorial Day or Memorial Day Weekend (the Friday, Saturday, and Sunday before Memorial Day) sales featuring low prices for summer clothes. The city that hosts the headquarters of DreyerCoaching.com, Roanoke, Virginia, hosts Festival in the Park on Memorial Day Weekend.
These are all terrific activities and a great way to spend time with family and friends. It can also be great weather, a great reason to spend some time outside. But Memorial Day was enacted to remember the soldiers who paid the ultimate price to protect our freedom and ability to live in the United States. It is because of them that we can have Memorial Day activities. In many towns, there is a parade downtown on Memorial Day with a military band like this one.
These two political cartoons show us how people's thoughts about Memorial Day have become less focused on the soldiers and more focused on the activities. Being able to interpret a political cartoon and identify the symbolism, irony, and overall message is a great intellectual skill. It is a fine way to keep your mind sharp.
This cartoon has a man grilling his food, making sure he has everything ready for the Memorial Day picnic. He doesn't want to forget anything, but the picture reminds us he is forgetting about all the soldiers who have died.
Mother's Day is a major holiday in many countries of the world, on the second Sunday in May. It is a major holiday in both the USA and Canada, but since it is always falls on a Sunday, it does not usually change one's work or school schedule.
Mother's Day is a day to honor and thank one's mother, and in many families, also a grandmother. Since it is always on a Sunday, that usually makes it easier for families to get together.
How we celebrate it in the USA
Like most holidays, different families celebrate in different ways. And of course, there are some people who do not celebrate the holiday. Maybe they have, for whatever reason, painful memories or experiences regarding their mother, or motherhood. However, there are some common ways this day is marked.
- Church attendance: Since Mother's Day is always on a Sunday, many families go to church together, and the children or grandchildren sit with their mom or grandmother. Many people who do not attend church regularly as a habit, will go on this day, to support mom, so church attendance is usually higher on this day than normal Sundays.
- Church activities: Most churches recognize Mother's Day in several ways. In many if not most, the clergyman will deliver a sermon, or message from the Bible, based on the role and importance of mothers. (It is widely recognized, that in many churches, women are more active in attendance and paraticipation than men, so women play a crucial role in church as they do in family.) The Bible teaches that mothers are important. Proverbs 31:28-19 reads:
Her children arise and call her blessed;
her husband also, and he praises her:
“Many women do noble things,
but you surpass them all.” (NIV)
In many churches, the congregation will give each mother a small gift, or maybe the children of the church will enter the sanctuary and give each mom a small gift, like a handdrawn picture or a flower. In many churches, the pastor will ask questions to honor certain mothers: Who is the youngest mother here today? Who is the most experienced mother? (This is a nice way of saying, "Who is the oldest mother?") Which mother has the most children? Which mother has a child the furthest away? (Once the pastor at the church my parents attend in Virginia asked this question. My mom raised her hand, because I was in Taiwan, but another woman raised hers too, because she had a son in Germany, serving in the US Army. At that point, a discussion erupted: Which is further away, Taiwan or Germany? To which my dad answered, "I think Taiwan is about as far away as you can get, until you start coming back again." That year, mom won that prize.) A student from Germany recently spent three weeks with us here, and he said, at his church in Germany, all the members have a cook-out for Mother's Day after the Sunday service.
Take a look at this video from a US church service on Mother's Day: and the woman who is speaking and singing knows a lot about Mother's Day--she has 7 kids!
- Lunch together: It is common for families to eat lunch together on Mother's Day. (Most moms say they do NOT want to cook or wash dishes that day!) So, most restaurants are packed. After several years' of bad experiences waiting for hours in crowded, noisy restaurants, our family eats our Mother's Day meal at home, but the men and children in the family are responsible for the meal--and the clean up.
I do not pretend to be a gourmet chef, but I did not want my wife or mom to have to cook on Mother's Day. So, we plan to grill hotdogs and hamburgers, and I made this bean salad so we'd have something healthy to go with it.
Mrs. Dreyer's 3-bean Salad:(healthy, quick, AND easy!)
- 1 can of green beans
- 1 can kidney beans
- 1 can garbanzo beans (also called chick peas)
- (You can also substitute canned wax beans, pinto beans, red beans, black beans, etc.)
- 1/2 cup sliced green pepper (optional)
- 1 medium onion, sliced thin
- Dressing: Heat on stove 1/2 cup cider vingar, 1/3 cup cooking oil, 1 teaspoon salt, 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
- Pour dressing on the salad, chill in the refrigerator and enjoy!
- Cards and Gift: Most children and husbands get a nice card and gift for mom. Common gifts include flowers, chocolates, new clothes, gift cards to mom's favorite restaurant or store, etc. When children are on their own and away from home, they might ship a gift to mom, or at least call her on the big day.
Here are some flowers that some of our children gave their mother for Mother's Day: they knew purple is their mom's favorite color!
Watch how these two young men answer the question, "What does Mother's Day mean to you?"
This is very funny at Mother's Day or almost any time, because "The Mom's Song" takes many things a mom (or dad) will tell a child in 24 hours, and reduce it to 3 minutes. Take a listen! (And you can read the lyrics too--it's fast!)
Many years ago I heard a story from family expert Dr. James Dobson, that has always been in my mind. This story is from many decades ago, before the age of computers and cell phones, when people made calls from phone booths. He said that a card company, I think Hallmark, wanted to do something good for society so they brought a phone line into a prison for a day, to let each inmate make a free call to his or her mom, for Mother's Day. The outreach was more successful than any company executive had dreamed, because all the prisoners came to the courtyard and stood in line for hours, to call mom. In fact, the event was so successful, the company leadership decided to redo the offer in June, for Father's Day. However, that time, the outreach was a failure. Why? Only a few prisoners came out to call dad; instead, most stayed in their cells. Dr. Dobson said this story illustrates how important a role moms have, in that those prisoners all wanted to call mom on that day. However, the story also shows how important fathers are; in this case, most prisoners either did not have a dad, or did not have a good relationship with their father, so they did not bother to call home. Furthermore, Dobson suggested that it was this poor father-child bond that may have contributed to so many people ending up in prison in the first place. So, moms and dads are both important, though maybe in some different ways.
Grammar question: How do you write this holiday? Mothers Day? Mother's Day? or Mothers' Day? This article explains that actually all three are gramatically correct, but each grammar change brings a small change in meaning. However, the woman who created the idea of Mother's Day wanted it written as a singual noun with the apostrophe BEFORE the "s," so that ishow we will use it here: Mother's Day.
Groundhog Day is on February 2 and it is a minor holiday. The main idea of the holiday is, if February 2 is a sunny day and a groundhog sees his shadow, then there will be six more weeks of winter. However, if he does NOT see his shadow that day, then it means spring will come early this year. Of course this is not science; it is folklore. Still, it makes a fun story and each year news shows report on what the groundhog sees.
Groundhogs are a very common wild animal in the USA. They can grow to be the size of a big cat or a small dog. You often see them by the side of the road or in people's yards, eating grass or weeds. In fact, many people consider groundhogs a pest. This is because they like to burrow and dig holes in the ground to live in. If a cow or horse steps into one of the holes, it can easily break its leg and there is no way to fix the broken leg. Therefore, many farmers and horse owners do not like groundhogs at all.
Since groundhogs are a common animal, some people are surprised to learn there is actually an "official" groundhog for Groundhog Day! His name is Phil, and he lives in a small town in the US State of Pennsylvania called Punxsutawney. In fact, the club that takes care of Phil even has its own website, groundhog.org! The custom of watching a groundhog in tiny Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania dates back to 1886! (You can learn more about the history here.) Each year on this date, some of the men in this club wear fancy black coats and hats and tell the world if Phil saw his shadow that day or not.
Since "All things are connected," "Groundhog Day" is not only a small holiday--it has also become a phrase in the English language! This is thanks to a 1993 comedy movie with Bill Murray where he is a weatherman sent to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania to do a news report on Phil the Groundhog. At the start of the movie, Murray is a selfish, arrogant person, and he gets stuck in the small town he does not like and with people he does not like, because a snowstorm keeps him from leaving. However, not only is he stuck in the town, he is also stuck in a time warp, and he keeps reliving February 2 over and over, until he learns some important life lessons and "gets it right."
So today, some people say "It's like Groundhog Day" to represent something boring that happens again and again.
- Billy hates his job. He does the same boring stuff with the same boring people day after day. He says it's like Groundhog Day.
- None of us like Mrs. Smith's history class: she just talks Monday through Thursday and gives us a test every Friday. It's like Groundhog Day.
Watch a short video clip about the movie here.
For lots more about Groundhog Day, check out this from elcivics.com.
Thank you for reading! Do you want to know more about the English language and life in the USA? Contact Scott today to find out how we can help you!
Presidential Turkey Pardon:
One of the funniest of the Thanksgiving traditions is the annual "presidential Turkey pardon." The US Constitution gives the president great powers, including the power to pardon an accused person of a crime. In a humorous twist, there is a tradition of the US president "pardoning" a turkey at Thanksgiving, saying that that turkey will NOT be eaten. Some claim that tradition began with President Truman in 1947, while others believe it began with President Lincoln during the Civil War. (read more here.) Starting in 1981, under President Reagan, it became the tradition for the spared tukey to live out his life at a children's farm. For many years, the turkeys enjoyed a happy retirement at the ironically-named "Frying Pan Farm" in Northern Virginia, close to Washington D.C.
However, recently the spared turkeys have been sent to Virginia Tech, a famous engineering and research univerity close to the world headquarters of DreyerCoaching.com. On the Virginia Tech campus, there is a spot called "Gobbler's Rest," where they will live.
After Thanksgiving 2017, a friend of mine from Taiwan drove to the Tech campus and saw Drumstick and Wishbone, the two turkeys pardoned by President Trump. (Scroll to p. 38 and read the article here, on the top right corner of the page.)
It's another funny USA holiday tradition!
Since many people stay up till midnight on New Year's Eve, December 31, to "ring in the new year," those people may sleep in and wake up a bit tired on January 1. And for those who felt the need to hit the bottle on New Year's Eve, they may enter the first day of the new year with a headache too!
New Year's Day is a USA federal holiday, so banks, schools, national parks, and post offices, etc. are all closed, as well as many businesses. (In fact, schools and colleges are all closed for about a two- to four-week period, in honor of Christmas and New Year.)
Frankly, compared to Christmas, in which excitement builds for several weeks, New Year's Day is generally low-key. Many people sleep in that day, and they may later call, text, or visit friends or family, wishing them a happy new year.
One traditional New Year's Day dish is "Hoppin' John." It's made with black-eyed peas, tomatoes, and cornbread. Some believe eating it on January 1 will bring good luck in the new year. I still clearly remember New Year's Day, 2015. My family and I had just moved into our new home, which is also the office of Dreyer Academy LLC, just a few days before, during the week between Christmas and New Years. (As teachers, we wanted to move during a time when school was closed, so we did not have to teach, and could just focus on the move.) By January 1, parts of our house had been set up, but we still had lots of boxes sitting around too. (Moving is a lot of work and hassle!) Mom and Dad wanted to give us a break, so they came over that day and, while Dad helped us unpack some boxes, Mom made Hoppin' John for us. It was delicious, and it was great having a hot, homecooked meal made for us right there, so we could enjoy that in the middle of our busy unpacking day.
Here are some photos of us enjoing Hoppin' John on Jan. 1, 2018, at home. The recipe is here.
With a new year, many people also like to think back on the past year, evaluate what went well and poorly, and make plans for a more successful new year. This is the end of the so-called "holiday season," because most K-12 schools and all stores and regular jobs get back to normal on January 2. (One exception is colleges: their spring term classes normally start one to two weeks later.)
With all the extra eating and festivities from Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's, many people have put on a few pounds, so for many people starting on January 2, one of their main goals is to lose some weight!
New Year's Eve is the night of December 31. "Eve" means the night before a big holiday, like in the word "evening," so December 24th is Christmas Eve. ("Eve" is also a woman's name; according to the Bible, she was the first woman on earth, wife to Adam.) New Year's Eve is basically the end of the so-called "holiday season," the time stretching from Thanksgiving to New Year's Day. (Some would now say the "holiday season" in the US starts on Halloween, October 31.) Read more about Christmas and the "holiday season" here.
Since New Year's falls exactly one week after Christmas, this is a special time of year. For example, practically all schools and colleges are closed during this period. Most US colleges are closed for about one month, from early December to early/mid January. Most colleges have their fall semester exams before the Christmas (winter) break, so students returning in January start the spring semester. All K-12 schools are closed for Christmas too, usually for about two weeks or so. Most classes resume on January 2. This is why the online classes at DreyerCoaching.com also pause for about two weeks at this time each year, and restart on January 2.
New Year's Eve is such a big holiday, most businesses close that day, or at least close early. For example, most grocery stores that are open 24/7 all year, close only twice a year: over Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, and again on New Year's Eve until the morning of New Year's Day, January 1.
Americans celebrate New Year's Eve in many ways. Some prefer to stay at home, just with family, and have a quiet evening. Others like to invite some friends over, or else go out with friends. Many people like to stay up till midnight and "ring in" the new year. Some families like to stop right at midnight, hold hands, and pray as the new year starts, asking for God's guidance and blessing in the new year. For many people, drinking alcohol is a big part of New Year's Eve. While some people must think it's fun to hit the bottle, we should also remember that drinking and driving is very dangerous, and can hurt or even kill people. Plus, it seems to me, it is better to wake up on the first morning of the new year feeling good and fresh, instead of having a bad headache or hangover.
Since the world is round and has 24 time zones, different parts of the world celebrate at different times. For us here in Virginia, USA, we are 13 hours behind East Asia, and six or seven hours behind Europe, so if we check the news around lunch time, we'll see news reports of New Year's Eve fireworks in places like Australia, Hong Kong, or Taiwan, and around dinner time, we'll see celebrations from London, Berlin or Paris.
Here is a video of some New Year's Eve celebrations in Asia! Notice how beautiful the fireworks in Hong Kong are-- you can enjoy them in the sky AND reflecting on the water of Victoria Harbor!
My wife and I had a remarkable New Year's Eve 2016, welcoming 2017, on board a small boat in Hong Kong's famous Victoria Harbor. You can practice your listening and hear the story here. Check out some of the images from that beautiful night, below.
One iconic New Year's celebration is watching the ball drop in Times Square in New York City. Starting on New Year's Eve 1907 to welcome 1908, there has been a ball drop slowly from a pole to welcome the new year each December, except for 1942 and 1943, because of blackouts for World War II. Some report that more than 1 billion people watch this on TV, and thousands crowd into Times Square that day, to get a spot to watch it. Since the crowds are so huge, people have to go early that day to get a spot, and if you leave, you won't get your space back!
You can watch a video of the 2017 Ball Drop here. Listen for the traditional New Year's Eve song, Auld Lang Syne, right at the stroke of midnight. Since the famou ball drop is in New York City, listen next for the famous Frank Sinatra song, New York, New York.
On New Year's Eve, in addition to celebrating, many people think back on the past year, both the good and bad things that happened, and make plans for the new year just ahead!
To find out about the next day, New Year's Day, read here!
Thanks for reading!
Zig Ziglar (1928-2012) was an author, salesman, and for many, America's premier motivational speaker. He had a way to teach deep truths in a simple way most people could easily understand. (As long as they could understand his Deep South accent, that is!)
I have long been a big fan of Zig, and when he was in his 80s, his health began to fail and he made fewer tours. So, when I found out he was going to speak at the Salem (Virginia) Civic Center, I jumped at the chance to go. I am so thankful I did get to hear him in person, for that was his last visit to our area.
I have enjoyed reading several of Zig's books, but I always found his quotations to be my favorites. Take a look here.
Since he was born in 1926, he grew up in the Great Depression, which began with the Stock Market Crash of October 1929. Remarkably, he remembers a Christmas when he was just six years old...and it was just seven weeks after his father and baby sister had died! His newly-widowed mother had eleven remaining children, and eight were still living at home! It is amazing what he remembers from that day, and the simple gifts he received, yet how much he enjoyed them.
You can read Zig's own story, in his own words, here.
Christmas, by far the biggest holiday in the American calendar, falls on December 25 of every year. Still, this holiday is so important in so many ways, it tends to occupy one month or so.
The Holiday Season
To learn about Christmas, we need to first discuss what most Americans call "the holiday season." True, we have holidays at different times of the year--Easter, Memorial Day, July 4, etc. But in the US, what we call "the holiday season" starts in about late November, with Thanksgiving, and lasts about five to six weeks until January 1. (Nowadays, you could almost say the "holiday season" starts around Halloween, October 31. This is because Halloween is now the second-biggest US holiday as measured by consumer spending, plus one often sees Christmas decorations and items for sale in stores by Halloween.) This is a period of time marked by many parties, dinners, decorations, gift-giving, etc. In fact, thanks to all the parties, dinners, and gifts of things you can eat, many Americans complain of gaining weight over the holidays. So, early January is a time when many people join gyms, in an attempt to lose the extra pounds and get back in sharp. Sadly, many of those people give up around February.
Our students at a Christmas Party at friends' home
This blog post is designed to give you a sense of some important traditions and elements of the Christmas holidays in the USA.
Christmas Tree & Ornaments
Many Americans buy a Christmas tree and place it in their home. Many offices, hospitals, etc. also have Christmas trees. Some people prefer artificial, or man-made trees. These have several advantages. First, cost. You can buy one tree, even a used one, and use it year after year. It is also easier. It is simple to put together, its needles do not drop, and you do not need to add water. It is also safer. They are made of a material that cannot burn. Still, many other people prefer the real trees, for these have some advantages too. It is fun to go out after Thanksgiving and pick your tree. Some people even drive to a tree farm and cut their own tree. When I was young, my dad owned a farm and we would cut a tree from there, for free. Plus, many people prefer the look and smell of a live tree in their home. If you have a live tree, you need to add water to the container at the base ever day or so, because the tree still continues to suck up water, even after it has been cut.
After you put up the tree, you can decorate it. This is a favorite Christmas tradition for many families. Some families have decorations they have passed down for several generations. Others like to have decorations that their children made, or they have photographs of their children on the decoration. Those are especially fun to look at after the passage of many years. Just this year I was looking through a small box of some "odds and ends" that my grandmother left us. In it I found two old, small clips with candle holders attached, and at once I knew what they were. They were used to clip to the Christmas tree to hold the candles that her family used to use for decorations, before they got electric lights. We also have a small "nativity set" decoration that our daughter made, because it says "Sarah 12-01" on the back. People have boxes that they use just to hold their Christmas ornaments and items; after the holidays, they box up the items and put them away until next December.
Many people decorate the outside of their homes too, with lights, trees, wreaths, greenery, and other colorful items. The main colors of Christmas are green and red.
Christmas artwork made by Deborah Dreyer
Greenery with red berries
American home at Christmas
The longer I live, the more I realize one of my favorite parts of the Christmas holidays is the music, called carols. There is a whole body of music that is dedicated to the Christmas season. Many radio stations start playing it around Thanksgiving, and they play it 24/7 until December 25. Then, when you wake up on December 26 and turn on the radio, it's all gone. The music basically falls into two categories: religious and secular. Some of the religious songs are hundreds of years old, and these all focus on the origin of Christmas, and the celebration of the birth of Jesus.
One particularly famous religious carol is O Holy Night, about the night when Jesus was born. Probably the most famous Christmas carol is Silent Night. One popular carol about a legendary little boy who came to play his drum for the Baby Jesus is Little Drummer Boy.
One well-loved secular carol is Sleigh Ride (listen for the horses' hooves, neighing, jingle bells, and cracking whip.) (To learn the difference between "sleigh" and "sled, read my blog here. These have the same word in Chinese.) Another popular one is White Christmas, here recorded by Bing Crosby in 1942, during World War II, and Holly Jolly Christmas.
With lots of time off from work and school, many people spend time over the holiday watching movies, and there are many Christmas movies and TV shows. One of the most beloved in It's a Wonderful Life, where the main character wants to take his life but is able to see how worse the world would be without him. This clip starts where George asks "let me live again," and he sees how wonderful his life has actually been. A Charlie Brown Christmas TV show turned 50 in 2015, and has become a US Christmas icon. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is another beloved story.
Black Friday & Shopping
Since Thanksgiving is a four-day weekend for many Americans, the day after Thanksgiving has become a major shopping day and a kick-off to the Christmas shopping season. Called "Black Friday," that day has many sales and people lined up to get the bargains. Unfortunately, many stores have now moved their sales forward, onto Thanksgiving Day and evening, so many people now have less time with their families on that holiday. Christmas is such "big business" in the US, that many stores actually LOSE money most of the year, and make most of their profit in the month leading up to Christmas. The tradition of giving gifts at Christmas comes from the Wise Men giving gifts to the Baby Jesus, as recorded in the Book of Matthew in the Bible.
Many people send Christmas cards to friends and relatives, but with Facebook and social media, this tradition seems to be decreasing. Still, many people use Christmas cards as a way to contact people they may not otherwise connect with over the rest of the year.
Christmas Foods & Drinks
Since eating is a major part of Christmas, there are some special foods and beverages associated with the holiday. A popular drink that you can only find this time of year is eggnog, a mixture of eggs, milk, and sugar. Lots of people like to bake Christmas cookies, and a popular activity is a "cookie exchange." In this, each person makes just one or two kinds of cookies, in a large amount, then they meet with some friends and everyone shares theirs. That way, rather than having lots of one kind, you can get a small sample of a large variety of cookies. If possible, many families like to get together for Christmas, and the main dishes tend to be either turkey or ham. Fruitcake is a traditional Christmas dessert.
Christmas Eve Church Service
Many families go to church on Christmas Eve; most such services are around 6:00 or 7:00 pm, but some are as late as 11:00 pm. These services usually include many Christmas carols and readings from the Luke Chapter 2 in the Bible about the birth of Jesus. These church services usually include everyone holding a candle. Singing Silent Night by candlelight on a Christmas Eve, in a large room lit by candles, is a beautiful experience.
Hear David Dreyer playing "Go Tell it on the Mountain" at a recent candlelight Christmas church service.
Most families have their "gift exchange" on Christmas morning. Usually the young children wake up first and dash to the Christmas tree, to see what they got for presents Parents love to take pictures of their young children opening the gifts. Some families read the Bible story about Jesus' birth at this time. (Read the Christmas story from the Bible, Luke Chapter 2, in English, Simplified Chinese, and Traditional Chinese.) Sometime on Christmas morning, many families have a large, hot breakfast. This is a casserole my mom often made for Christmas morning, and some years I make it for my family too on that special day. Here's the recipe. All schools and most businesses are closed, so Christmas Day is traditionally a day to spend with family and reflect on the birth of Jesus and the year's end.
Do you want to know more about Christmas greenery and see many other links about Christmas? Check out this great site, WhyChristmas.com to see more!
Thank you for reading. Merry Christmas!
Do you want more help with your English? Do you want to know more about American holidays and life in the USA? We teach this online during the year, so our lessons come straight from the USA to your home or office. Contact us today about how we can help you!
Christmas is an international holiday, and is the biggest holiday by far in the American calendar. But where does Christmas come from? What is its meaning?
This entertaining cartoon story in special English will help you understand!
Read it here: The Christmas Story
Here are some vocabulary words from the story that might be new for you, with their Chinese translations:
(I write this story in the form of a Personal Narrative; for more on how to write this sort of essay, read this.)
Charlie Brown is an American cultural icon. And a famous cartoon is the 1966 "A Charlie Brown Christmas." A key moment in the film is when Charlie Brown, with exasperation, cries out, "Doesn't anybody know what Christmas is all about?!"
You can see an excerpt here: A Charlie Brown Christmas
But, unlike the malls, let's not rush Christmas, and focus on Thanksgiving for now.
This is my story of when I personally learned "what Thanksgiving is all about."
It was 1985. (Not 1984, the book by George Orwell I deeply enjoy.) A third year university student, I had chosen to leave my familiar environment at the College of William and Mary, in Williamsburg, Virginia, for the challenge of a Junior Year Abroad in Münster, Germany. The delights were many (being surrounded by German, the fresh bread, etc.), but the challenges were many too (being surrounded by German, the lousy weather, etc.). Looking back, I realize I was [partly] going through the classic "Four Phases of Culture Shock."
1. Honeymoon Phase (Everything is wonderful, it's like being on vacation.) That sums up the first few weeks: making friends in Germany, being surrounded by the language, setting up my dorm room, etc.
2. Culture Shock (Everything is crazy, and you feel way out of place.)
3. Adaptation (You gradually get used to the new place, and can see the pros and cons of your new situation.)
4. Enculturation (You feel "at home" in the new place.)
(Being in Germany for just about 10 months total, I probably ended up in stage 3...getting to stage 4 takes longer, and not everyone makes it there.)
But back to my story:
Since American Thanksgiving comes in late November, by that time of year I had already been in Germany about two and a half months. In other words, the "newness" had definitely worn off, and I was no longer in the "honeymoon phase." Two months of classes where everything was in German, rain and snow while I was riding my bike around town, nightfall around 5:00, plus the culture shock and homesickness (this was my first extended time away from home)...it was all taking its toll.
And then came Thanksgiving. This was my first major holiday to miss with family, and as you know, holidays are a particularly hard time to be in a foreign zone. Thanksgiving has been called "the most American, American holiday," and it does not exist in Germany--no fat turkeys, no pictures of smiling Pilgrim children, nichts.
Thanksgiving Day was uneventful: got up, rode my bike to classes (in Germany, most university buildings are scattered about a city, not clustered on a campus), lunch in the Mensa, etc. But as evening fell, I began to truly miss home. Knowing my family in Virginia, USA would be gathering to eat around lunchtime, I called them around 6:00 pm, accounting for the time difference. In today's world of cell phones and Instagram, this is hard to imagine. But 1985 was still in the Cold War, I had not yet seen my first fax machine, and there was only one way I could call my family: leave my dorm room, descend three flights of steps, walk outside the Internationales Studentenheim where I lived, and go to the single phone booth in the courtyard, out by the main street, Bismarckallee.
That night is etched in my memory. It was my first Thanksgiving away from home. By late November, the sun set there before 4:30, some 40 minutes earlier than in my hometown of Roanoke, Virginia, and when you consider most winter days in Western Germany were cloudy, it was often dark and gloomy before 4:00. It was so cold, the Aasee lake across the street was frozen over enough for people to ice skate on. I still remember the crunch, crunch my boots made as I walked across the snow-encrusted courtyard, in the darkness. Fortunately, the phone booth was empty. I chucked a few German mark coins into the slot--thunk, thunk--and dialed the number. The phone rang, and I could then hear my loved ones on the other end, at mom and dad's house. With excited chatter, they asked about how things were going for me in Germany, about their Thanksgiving meal preparations, how they missed me, etc. I gave them a brief update on life in Münster, told them how much I missed them, and we all wished each other a happy Thanksgiving. And then, as the marks' value dwindled in the phone, it was over. Dead line. Silence. I cradled the phone receiver back on the hook, and trudged silently back across the courtyard. Crunch, Crunch.
It was cold and gloomy outside, but the inside of the dorm could hardly be called a cheery place. Our Hausmeister, an older, heavy-set man, personified German thrift by keeping the temperature about as low as he could, and seemingly using the lowest-wattage light bulbs possible. I quietly climbed the dimly-lit concrete stairs, and retreated to the relative comfort of my room. At least I had decorated it as I had wished, and had added some extra lights in an attempt to brighten things up some.
It was about 6:00-ish. Many people look back on their lives and wish they had spent less money. As I look back on my life, I see some times when I should have spent more. But since my parents were across the Atlantic and a bail-out not very handy, I kept a tight grip on the purse strings. I usually took lunches in the student Mensa, where the subsidized meals were only a couple of dollars. But to stretch out my funds, I usually bought groceries at the budget Aldi supermarket, along with many of the other cash-strapped students and foreign guest workers in Germany. There has been no small excitement as Aldi opened its first store in my hometown of Roanoke, Virginia this month, but Aldi and I go way back, to the 1980's, to Germany. So to prepare my solo "dinner," I pulled out the very large loaf of bread I had bought, some butter and jams...then I sat there at my desk, which doubled as my table when I ate alone, and thought:
Why am I here?
What am I doing here?
If I had stayed at William and Mary, I could have been home for Thanksgiving, having a huge feast right now, instead of sitting in this room by myself, getting ready to eat cold bread!
(Looking back, I now see it would have been wise to find a few friends and tell them, "Hey, tomorrow is American Thanksgiving, and I don't want to be alone on that day. Can we get together and have dinner and do something fun?" But for whatever reason, I did not do that. Live and learn. But still it all worked out for the best....)
Sitting there alone, looking at my meal of bread and jam, I was overcome with sadness, even self-pity.
And to this day I don't know exactly what triggered it, but then I suddenly pushed myself away from the desk, stood up, and walked to the middle of my dorm room. Lifting my hands and closing my eyes, I began to thank God. Immediately, my melancholy vanished and was replaced with a deep-seated joy, almost delight. I reminded myself that Thanksgiving is not just about the turkey and pumpkin pie, but it's about being thankful for what you have. So I began to think of all the wonderful things I had to be thankful for at that moment: being able to study in Germany; knowing German; the friends I had there and what I had already learned; a trip to Budapest, Hungary to look forward to over Christmas; the blessing of carrying a US passport that let me travel all over the world; the money, health, and language skills I had that made travel possible.... The longer I stood there (totally alone, mind you), arms raised and thanking God for all I had to be grateful for, the more joy I experienced. To this day, it was a moment and feeling I have never forgotten. And I do now know how long I stood there thanking God--maybe a couple of minutes--but before I sat down, as I was still standing, I heard a knock at the door.
Opening my door and peering out into the dimly-lit hallway, I saw a couple of Chinese girls standing there, smiling. We had met a few times before in our dorm, set aside for foreign students, but were not what you would call "friends." As I remember, they were a few years older than me, and had wanted to study in the US but could not get the visa, so they came to Germany to attend university instead, and had arrived recently. With beaming smiles, they told me, "We have cooked a big Chinese meal, and would like to invite you to join us."
You can imagine my delight and surprise, so of course I immediately accepted, told them that today was American Thanksgiving, but that I had planned to eat a cold meal of bread and jam, until they had come to invite me. As proof, I showed them the loaf sitting on my desk, and they roared with laughter. They too expressed amazement, not knowing (obviously) that that day was Thanksgiving, and they too were glad they had invited me so I did not have to be alone. They guided me to the even more dimly-lit basement of our dormitory, but sure enough, they had prepared a veritable Chinese feast, all they had cooked from scratch. It smelled delicious and tasted even better. I tried to explain to them how I had been so sad to have been alone on that holiday, but that I had learned through that experience to be thankful for what I had, and how their arrival was like a gift from God to me. They politely nodded, and kept joking among themselves, in Chinese, about the big loaf of bread, gesturing to show its enormity and laughing some more.
That was Thanksgiving 1985, and we communicated in a mixture of English and German. I would not learn my first Chinese until 1989, when I was preparing to move to China to teach English, but those girls and I did have a few more meals together that year, and they taught me how to use chopsticks. That's why, when I moved to Taiwan in 1989, I already knew how to use them. Over the years many Chinese have, politely, complimented me on how well I handle chopsticks, and all I can say is 谢谢. 我在德国学习. (Thank you. I learned that in Germany.) The fact that a white guy from Roanoke, Virginia USA learned to use chopsticks in Germany just shows that God has a wonderful sense of irony and humor.
Months passed. I did go visit friends in Budapest for Christmas, turned 21 that spring, visited the former USSR in May, and finished the year, bagging the full 30 credits to bring back to William and Mary, where I was able to graduate on time the next year. But I will never forget that cold night in November 1985, when, thousands of miles away from home and everything familiar, from all the "props" that make us feel comfortable, I learned "what Thanksgiving is all about."
Halloween is an American holiday that comes on October 31. Unlike the major holidays of, say, Thanksgiving or Christmas, where schools and businesses are closed, this is a smaller holiday like Valentine's Day. Much to kids' disappointment, schools are in session on Halloween.
Mums and pumpkins for sale
Pumpkins and gourds for sale
Pumpkins for sale
Carving the Jack-o-Lantern
Ready for Halloween!
Learn more about the origins of Halloween in this video. You can also learn more about the history of the Jack-o-Lantern here.
Today some homeowners decorate their homes for the holiday. For most people, a Jack-o-Lantern or scarecrow are enough, but some decorations are downright spooky. In addition to decorating, many homeowners buy a few bags of candy to give out to children who may come to their door. On Halloween, often starting an hour or two before dark, children go door to door and yell "trick or treat!" Most parents prefer to go with their children, especially young children,and only go to homes where they know the residents. Coming home after trick or treating and dumping out all the candy on the floor or table to see how much "loot" they got is a joy for children on the night of October 31.
A recent alternative to Halloween and Trick-or-Treating is "Trunk-or-Treating." This celebration, usually held in a church parking lot, involves people decorating the back of their car ("the trunk") and parking their cars in neat rows, with the trunks all facing the same direction. The children still dress up, but instead of going door to door, which involves walking on dark streets and maybe going to strangers' homes, this is all in one place, a church parking lot. Plus, Trunk or Treating is with people you know, so many see it as a safer and more wholesome alternative to the traditional Halloween celebrations.
Trunk or Treating
We hope you'll join us for a semester in the USA. You may get to experience this or other holidays! http://dreyercoaching.com/en/come-to-the-usa/housing