Great Britain is the name for England, Wales and Scotland. The United Kingdom (UK) is England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and it has got a population of about 65 million people. Great Britain is the largest island in Europe and the ninth largest island in the world. The earliest known name of Great Britain is Albion. The name ‘Britain’ comes from the Latin word Brittania or ‘the land of the Britons’.
Britain was first populated by Celtic tribes. In 43 AD the Romans invaded the island and established the province of Brittania. The Romans ruled there for almost 400 years, and when they left Britain in the 5th century AD, the island was invaded by Germanic tribes – the Angles, Saxons and Jutes. The Anglo-Saxon tribes united in the 10th century to form the Kingdom of England. The Angles also gave their name to England
In 1066 England was invaded by the Normans, and Norman kings ruled in the country for about one century. The kingdom of England grew in power and it took control of Wales and Ireland. In 1707 England and Scotland united and formed the Kingdom of Great Britain. By the 1800s, Great Britain was one of the most powerful countries in the world.
THE UNION JACK
The British flag, also known as the Union Jack is one of the most famous emblems in the world. Its history started in 1606, when King James VI of Scotland became King James I of England. When the two kingdoms were united, it was decided that the union should be represented by a new flag – a combination of the flags of England and Scotland.
In 1801 Northern Ireland became part of the United Kingdom and the flag was changed again: the Irish cross of Saint Patrick was added, and the Union Jack as we know it today was created.
The cross represented in each flag is named after the patron saint of each country: St. George, the patron saint of England, St. Andrew, the patron saint of Scotland and St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland.
And what about Wales, the fourth country of the United Kingdom? The Welsh dragon was not incorporated because when the first version of the Union Flag was designed in 1606, Wales was then part of England.
ST ANDREW AND THE SCOTTISH FLAG
St Andrew is the patron saint of Scotland and his day, celebrated on November 30th, is a bank holiday and an official flag day. St Andrew was a fisherman who lived in Galilee in the 1st century AD. He was baptized by John the Baptist and together with his brother, Simon Peter, he became one of the twelve disciples of Jesus Christ. Andrew was crucified by the Romans on an X-shaped cross in 60 AD and this is represented on the Scottish flag as the white cross in a blue sky.
The flag of Scotland, also known as the Saltire or the Saint Andrew’s Cross, is the oldest flag in Europe. Legend has it that in 832 AD an army of Picts and Scots, led by king Angus MacFergus, was surrounded by a far more numerous army of Angles. King Angus was afraid that his army might lose and so he started to pray to St Andrew for help. The saint appeared to Angus in a dream, and the king promised St Andrew that if he helped him win the battle, then he would become the patron saint of his country. The following morning a strange cloud appeared in the blue sky, forming a white diagonal cross, which looked like the cross on which the saint had been crucified. King Angus and his army believed this was a good omen for them, but the Angles were scared of it: they lost heart, and they lost the battle. King Angus kept his promise and St Andrew’s cross has been the Scottish flag ever since. Picts and Scots were united in 843 AD by Kenneth MacAlpin, the new kingdom was called Scotland, and St Andrew became its patron saint.
The kilt is the national dress of Scotland and Scottish people wear it with pride. The kilt was easy to make and use and it had many advantages in the Highland climate and terrain. There were almost no roads in the Highlands and people often travelled across the damp grassland on foot. The kilt was very practical there because it was almost completely waterproof and it dried out a lot more quickly than trousers. Interestingly, the kilt was banned in the second half of the 18th century, and the punishment for wearing it was up to seven years captivity (prisoners were sent to penal colonies in America and Australia). Anyway, many people took the risk and the kilt instantly became an icon of Scotland.
Robin Hood is one of the most popular heroes in English folklore. The legendary outlaw from Nottinghamshire, who stole from the rich and gave to the poor, became a popular figure in the late medieval period. Legend has it that he was a skilled archer who lived during the 12th or 13th century in Sherwood Forest with his ‚Merry Men’.
He is usually pictured as a young man armed with a longbow, wearing green clothes and a hood. He was outlawed for poaching deer from the royal forests. Under the cruel laws of that time, killing the king’s deer was punishable by death. He committed the crime and escaped to the woods.
His enemies were rich and corrupt, especially the evil Sheriff of Nottingham. Despite his efforts, the Sheriff did not manage to capture Robin Hood until the return of king Richard the Lionheart from the Crusades. Although Robin was a thief and a rebel, he supported the rightful king and was pardoned when king Richard returned to England. That is the legend, but did Robin really exist? Well, no one has been able to prove beyond doubt that Robin Hood was a real person and some people believe that he was just a fictional character. Others claim that he was not one person but a combination of a few people, as several men named Robin Hood existed at different times. Also, ‘Robin’ or ‘Robert Hood’ was a nickname given to petty criminals from the middle of the 13th century and it is not very surprising that the name ‘Robin’ sounds similar to ‘robbing’. Whether he was a real person or not, his legend continues to this day.
WHY DO THE BRITISH DRIVE ON THE LEFT?
According to one popular theory, the majority of people are right-handed, so driving or riding on the left was simply more convenient for them. Travelling was quite a risky undertaking during the Middle Ages when attacks on travellers were very common, so it would have been very unreasonable to hit the road unarmed. When travelling on the left, people could hold their sword or some other kind of weapon with their dominant hand and defend themselves if necessary. Also, archaeological evidence suggests that ancient Roman troops may have marched and driven their carts and chariots on the left. The custom was adopted in the lands they had conquered (including Britain), and continued into the Middle Ages. Also, in 1300 AD Pope Boniface VIII declared that all pilgrims travelling to Rome should keep to the left.
Interestingly, for many centuries driving on the left was just a custom on the British Isles and left-hand traffic became the law of the land in Britain as late as 1835. Britain’s driving style was then adopted by its colonies and territories such as Australia, New Zealand, Canada, South Africa and India, which still drive on the left. Canada switched to the right side of the road in the 1920s to fit in with the USA.
WHY ARE BRITISH POLICEMEN CALLED BOBBIES?
England is famous for many things. Among them are Big Ben, red double decker buses and telephone booths, the Queen’s guards in red uniforms with furry bearskin hats – and policemen who are commonly referred to as ‘Bobbies’.
How did ‘Bobbies’ they get their name?
The explanation is quite simple: Bobby is a nickname for Robert and it comes from the founder of the police, Sir Robert Peel, who was Home Secretary between 1822 and 1827. It may be hard to believe but in the 18th century Britain did not have a professional police force. In 1829 Peel created the Metropolitan Police, which replaced the old system of watchmen and, in tribute to him, the officers were later referred to as ‚Bobbies’ or ‚Peelers’.
THE STORY OF THE SANDWICH
People eat sandwiches all over the world but not everybody knows that the word ‚sandwich’ comes from Britain. It was named after an 18th-century English aristocrat and gambler, John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich, who liked this form of food because he could eat it without using a fork, and continue playing cards. It is said that he ordered his servants to bring him meat tucked between two pieces of bread, and then other players began to order ‘the same as Sandwich’ – and the idea caught on. It is possible that John Montagu did not really ‚invent’ the sandwich because the use of bread under and over some other kind of food predates the 18th century and is found in many other cultures worldwide. However, he may have made it popular.
The United States of America, or the USA, the fourth largest country in the world, is situated mostly in central North America. The country is composed of 50 states, and it has got a population of about 325 million people. American society is a mixture of all races – white, black, Latino and Asian. Each year more than 1.1 million immigrants come to the US from all over the world.
THE STAR SPANGLED BANNER
The American flag consists of thirteen horizontal stripes – 7 red and 6 white stripes – representing the first 13 colonies which became the first states, and fifty small white stars which represent the present 50 US states. The flag is sometimes called The Star-Spangled Banner – which is also the name of the national anthem of the USA.
NEW YORK CITY
New York City (NYC) is located in New York State in the northeast of the USA. It is sometimes called a Melting Pot because it is home to people from almost every country in the world! The city also has other nicknames, including The Big Apple or The City That Never Sleeps, because it is such a busy place with lots of people, cars, shops and theatres.
New York has about 8.6 million inhabitants, which makes it the biggest American metropolis. About 60 million tourists visit New York every year.
New York has a long and interesting history, which started some 400 years ago on the island of Manhattan. The first people who lived there were Indians, or Native Americans, and the name Manhattan comes from their language. In the 17th century, settlers from Holland bought Manhattan from the native people. They built a city there and they called it New Amsterdam. Later, the British took it over and changed its name to New York. The city grew very fast and from 1785 to 1790 it was the capital of the United States.
There are five boroughs in the New York City: Manhattan, the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn and Staten Island. Manhattan is the oldest and the most famous one of them. There are two rivers in New York: the Hudson River and the East River. The East River is actually not a river but part of the Atlantic Ocean, and its water is salty. All the boroughs are linked by bridges and the subway system.
The Brooklyn Bridge, which connects Manhattan and Brooklyn, is one of the most famous tourist attractions in New York and the USA. It is a little more than a mile long and it takes about 30 to 45 minutes to cross it on foot, depending on how fast you walk!
The bridge is one of the most famous tourist attractions in New York and the USA. It was built in the years 1869–83 and first it was called the East River Bridge because it spans the East River. In 1884 twenty-one elephants walked across the bridge to prove that it was safe!
Central Park is located in the center of Manhattan and it’s one of the largest city parks in the world. It is sometimes called ‘the green lungs of New York’ because there are a lot of trees, which produce oxygen and make the city air better to breathe. There are also three lakes, a castle, a skating rink and a zoo. Central Park is a place where people walk, jog, play games, picnic and relax. When you plan a trip to New York City, Central Park is one of the spots you cannot miss!
Central Park is about 4 km long and 800 meters wide. It is bigger than Vatican City.
THE STATUE OF LIBERTY
The Statue of Liberty, also known as Lady Liberty, is a famous monument that has stood on Liberty Island in New York Harbor for about 130 years. It is a symbol of freedom and America and it wasn’t always green!
The statue was a gift from France, completed and presented to America on July 4th, 1884 as a sign of friendship between the two nations. It was designed by Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, a French sculptor, and built by Gustave Eiffel, the designer of the Eiffel Tower. The Statue of Liberty represents Libertas – the Roman goddess of freedom. However, it is said that the statue’s face was modelled on the sculptor’s own mother. The outside of the statue is made of copper, which was originally brown and became light green over time. In her right hand Lady Liberty holds a torch which represents the enlightenment of the world. In her left hand she holds a tablet representing the law with the date of the American Declaration of Independence (July 4, 1776). She also has a crown with seven rays which symbolize the seven continents of the world. From the ground to the top of the torch, the statue measures 93 meters, and when it was erected in 1886, it was the tallest iron structure ever built. It is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the United States with around 4 million people visiting it each year. In 1984, the statue was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Times Square is one of the most popular places in New York City. It stretches between Broadway and Seventh Avenue, and it is the place where people meet to celebrate New Year’s Eve and look at the famous New Year’s Eve Ball, which drops down a flagpole at midnight on December 31st.
The name of the square comes from The New York Times, which used to have its headquartes there. In 1913 The New York Times moved its offices to a new location, but the name remained. The newspaper also started the New Year’s Eve Ball tradition- and the ball drops from the top of their old building.
The Times Square draws millions of tourists and visitors. It is estimated that 360,000 people visit Times Square each day.
Broadway is the name of a long street in Manhattan, which gave its name to the most theater district in the world. If you like musicals, Broadway is the place to go. There are forty theatres where you can see great shows with world-famous actors, such as The Lion King or Mamma Mia. And if you are lucky, you can meet the stars and get their autographs!
NEW YORK SKYSCRAPERS
The word ‘skyscraper’ comes from a type of sail on a sailing ship and New York is a city of skyscrapers. There are almost 6.000 high-rise buildings there, and most of them are in Manhattan.
The tallest building in NYC is One World Trade Center, which is 541 m tall.
It has the same name as one of the twin towers that were destroyed in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Two other famous skyscrapers are the Empire State Building (381 m) and the Chrysler Building (319 m). For many years the Empire State Building was the tallest and most famous building in the world. Interestingly, it was built during the Great Depression in the USA and at that time nobody was interested in renting office space there, so people made jokes and called it The Empty State Building.
Uncle Sam (U.S.) is one of the most popular American icons and a common national personification of the American government, the US Military and the United States in general. He is portrayed as an elderly gentleman with white hair and a goatee, wearing a white top hat with white stars on a blue band, a blue tailcoat and red and white striped trousers.
The name came into use during the War of 1812 and it is believed that Uncle Sam was an actual person called Samuel Wilson. He was an entrepreneur from Troy, New York, who supplied beef to the US Army during the war. There was a requirement at the time for contractors to stamp their name and where the products came from onto the food they were sending. Legend has it that Wilson’s packages were labeled ‘E.A – US.’ When someone asked what that stood for, a coworker joked and said ‚Elbert Anderson (who was the contractor) and Uncle Sam’, referring to Sam Wilson, even though it actually stood for United States. The name was then picked up by soldiers and became a familiar nickname for the USA.
US PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION
George Washington was elected in the first US presidential election in 1789. Back then only white men who were property owners could vote – which meant that 94% of the population were not allowed to cast a ballot. Americans choose their president every four years and they always vote on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November.
Why was such a date selected?
The Constitution does not say when Election Day should be and in the early 1800s people could vote from April to December In 1845, Congress decided that voting day would be the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November, which was after the autumn harvest and before winter weather made travel too difficult. Back then, officials thought that farmers needed a day to get to the nearest polling station to vote and they did not want to interfere with church day on Sunday. So Tuesday seemed to be a perfect choice.
And who can run for president? To be a presidential candidate you need to be at least 35 years old, a permanent US resident for at least 14 years, and a natural US born citizen.
POTUS, FLOTUS & SCOTUS
Have you ever heard these funny words and do you know what they mean?
POTUS is President of the United States.
FLOTUS is an acronym for First Lady of the United States.
SCOTUS stands for the Supreme Court of the United States.
Canada is the second largest country in the world and is situated in the north of North America. It borders the United States and is surrounded by the Pacific, Atlantic and Arctic oceans. Canada is a huge country but its population is rather small – about 36 million, with only 3 people living per square kilometre!
Almost 50% of the people in Canada were born in other countries and 81 % of all Canadians live in cities. The biggest Canadian cities include Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton and Ottawa – the capital of Canada. Interestingly, Montreal is the world’s second largest French speaking city after Paris.
HOW CANADA GOT ITS NAME
The name Canada comes from a misunderstanding by Jacques Cartier, a 16th century French explorer. When Cartier was visiting the New World, the native people wanted to invite him to visit their village. The word for ‘village’ in their language was ‘kanata’. Cartier thought they were talking about the whole country and when he returned to Europe he referred to the new land as ‘Canada.’ And this is how Canada got its name!
Ireland is a country in Western Europe situated on an island in the Atlantic Ocean, which has the same name and is described as ‘the Emerald Island’ because of its green countryside. The island of Ireland is separated from Great Britain by the Irish Sea.
Ireland is called Éire in Irish and it is also known as the Republic of Ireland. The Republic covers five-sixths of the island and the rest is Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom.
The country has a population of about 4.75 million people and it is estimated that over 80 million people of Irish origin live outside Ireland, in countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Argentina, New Zealand, Mexico, South Africa and continental Europe.
Dublin is the capital and largest city of Ireland with a population of about 1.3 million people. It was founded as a Viking settlement, which then grew and became more important and in 1922 Dublin became the capital of Ireland. Dublin is a very green city with lots of parks and green spaces. Over 25% of the total population of Ireland live in Dublin.
Irish, or Gaelic, is the country’s first official language and children have to learn it in all schools up to secondary level, however the second official language – English – is more commonly spoken. Shamrock (a type of clover) is the national symbol of Ireland.
THE FLAG OF IRELAND
The flag of Ireland was designed in 1848 and its colours have a special meaning: the green represents Irish Catholics, the orange represents the island’s Protestants and the white represents the hope that the two religions will live together in peace.
ST PATRICK’S DAY
On March 17th Irish people celebrate St Patrick’s day. St. Patrick is the patron saint of Ireland, however, he was not actually Irish. He was the son of Romans who lived in Britain in the 5th Century AD, and legend says he was kidnapped and taken as a slave to the Emerald Isle. Saint Patrick’s Day is Ireland’s official national holiday.
Legend has it that in the 5th century AD St. Patrick killed all Ireland’s snakes and there are no native snakes there to this day. This has become such a popular myth that it is believed by almost everyone. It is also completely untrue because Ireland never had any snakes!
WHY ARE THERE NO SNAKES IN IRELAND?
Snakes are found in deserts, forests and mountains almost everywhere in the world. Almost everywhere: except New Zealand, Hawaii, Iceland, Greenland, Antarctica and, of course, Ireland.
Legend has it that in the 5th century St. Patrick, Ireland’s patron saint, exterminated all of the island’s snakes by driving them into the sea where they drowned. While it’s true that apart from zoos and pet shops there are no native snakes on the emerald isle, the infamous reptiles never got there in the first place – which is connected with the island’s history and geography. During the last ice age the country was too cold for snakes to survive. However, when it got warmer and the big thaw came, the land bridge between Ireland and the rest of Europe became flooded before any snakes were able to cross it. So how did the legend of St. Patrick and the snakes originate? Most scholars agree that snakes symbolize evil and paganism, which St. Patrick also banished from the island.
Australia is a large, rich country, which consists of the Australian continent (the smallest continent in the world), the island of Tasmania and a number of small islands. It is the sixth largest country in the world – after Russia, Canada, the USA, China and Brazil. The name Australia comes from the Latin name Terra Australis which means ‘southern land’.
Australia is flat, hot and dry. Over 60% of its territory is desert. In the north, half of the year is wet – with heavy rains – and the other half is dry. Australia is situated in the southern hemisphere and the seasons there are different than in Europe: December is in summer and June is in winter. Christmas in Australia is celebrated in the middle of summer and people often spend it on the beach!
Even though Australia is a huge country, there are only about 24 million people there – only about 3 people per square kilometre. Most Australians live on the coast, in the east and south of the country with the best weather.
The first Australians were the Aborigines who migrated from Asia about 40,000 years ago. The name ‘aborigine’ comes from Latin and it means ‘original inhabitants.’
Chinese explorers visited Australia some 2,500 years ago and Europeans from Holland sailed to the continent in the 17th century. In 1770 Captain James Cook sailed to Australia and from then on the continent was a British territory. Britain had a lot of prisoners but not enough prisons and soon it started sending them to Australia. It was so far that they could not escape and they had to work very hard building roads, cities and farms. Later, ordinary people started to arrive from Britain to make a new life there, and when gold was discovered in Australia in 1851, thousands more came from North America, Britain, Ireland and China.
In 1901 six Australian states (New South Wales, South Australia, Western Australia, Victoria, Queensland and Tasmania) became one country.
Sydney is the oldest and biggest city in Australia with the famous Harbour Bridge and the Opera House. It is an important business centre but at the same time it has got lots of beautiful beaches. Many people think Sydney is the capital of Australia but the capital city is Canberra – one of the newest cities in the country. The name Canberra is an Aboriginal word and it means ‘a meeting place’.
THE AUSTRALIAN NATIONAL FLAG
The Australian National Flag has three elements on a blue background. A white Commonwealth Star has seven points which represent the six states and territories of Australia. The seventh point was added in 1908. The Southern Cross is connected with Australia’s geography: it is a constellation of five stars that can only be seen from the southern hemisphere. The Union Jack commemorates Australia’s historical links with Britain.
The outback is the flat and hot centre of Australia, which is a very hard place to live. It covers almost 70% of the continent but has very few inhabitants. The children who live there usually do not go to school but they learn from home using the Internet and the Schools of the Air. They only meet other children from their ‘class’ once a year when they spend a week together.
Uluru or Ayers Rock is one of Australia’s top attractions. It is a huge red rock in the middle of a desert and it is a special place for aboriginal people. A lot of tourists travel to Australia each year to see the Great Barrier Reef – the world’s longest coral reef with hundreds of different species of colourful fish. Australia also has a lot of unusual animals which only live there – such as the kangaroo, the koala or the platypus with its wide and flat tail.
New Zealand is located in the south-western Pacific Ocean about 1,500 km east of Australia. It consists of two main islands – the North Island and the South Island – and a number of smaller islands. Due to its remote location, New Zealand was one of the last groups of islands to be discovered and settled by humans. It is also widely considered to be one of the most beautiful places on earth with a unique range of flora and fauna. The country is similar in size to the UK, but is sparsely populated with only 4.57 million inhabitants.
Wellington is the capital and second largest city of New Zealand, located at the southern tip of the North Island. The city takes its name from Arthur Wellesley, the first Duke of Wellington, who is most famous for winning the Battle of Waterloo. About 496,000 people live in the Wellington region, which is over 10 % of the country’s population.
Wellington is the southernmost capital city in the world. Because of its geographic location, it experiences very strong winds and is often called the world’s windiest city.
The largest city in New Zealand is Auckland. Other major cities include Christchurch and Hamilton.
Most New Zealanders have European roots – mainly British and Irish – and around 15% of the country’s population are Māori – the islands’ first settlers.
New Zealand has three official languages: English, Māori and New Zealand Sign Language. English is the main language but Māori is also taught in Māori schools.
The country’s national symbol is the kiwi – the flightless bird which is native to New Zealand.
HOW NEW ZEALAND GOT ITS NAME
The first inhabitants of New Zealand were the Māoris who migrated from other Pacific islands – probably between the 10th and 13th century AD.
Abel Tasman, a Dutch explorer, was the first European to discover New Zealand in 1642. He actually thought it was an island off South America and he called it Staten Landt (Southern Lands) because it was a bit similar to the south of Holland, his own country. When his findings became known, Dutch mapmakers gave the islands the Latin name Nova Zeelandia after the Dutch province of Zeeland (meaning ‘sea land’). The islands were later visited by the British explorer James Cook on three separate expeditions in the late 1700’s. He changed their name to New Zealand and claimed them for Britain.
THE FLAG OF NEW ZEALAND
The flag of New Zealand has two elements: the Union Jack in the upper left quarter, and the four-star Southern Cross on the right. The stars are red with a white outline. The constellation can only be seen in the Southern hemisphere and it was a useful navigational tool for sailors up to modern times.
HOW THE DAYS OF THE WEEK GOT THEIR NAMES
English is a Germanic language, which developed from the dialects of the Angles and Saxons – the Germanic tribes that invaded Britain in the 5th and 6th century AD. Like many other peoples of that time, they worshipped celestial bodies such as the sun and the moon, as well as a number of gods who are commemorated in the present day names of the days of the week.
Sunday comes from ‘Sunnandæg’, which means ’sun’s day. Sunna was the sun goddess. Monday comes from ‘Mōnandæg’ and it was named after Máni, the personification of the moon. Tuesday comes from Old English ‘Tīwesdæg’. Tiw, or Tyr, was a one-handed god of war. Wednesday comes from Old English ‘Wōdnesdæg’ and it means ‘Wōden’s day’. Wōden, or Odin, was the ruler of all the gods. Thursday, comes from Old English ‘Þūnresdæg’ or ‘Thor’s day’. It was named after Thor, the god of thunder who was usually pictured with a hammer. Friday comes from Old English ‘Frīgedæg’ and it was named after the wife of Odin whose name was Frigg or Freya. As for Saturday, it comes from the Anglo-Saxon word ‘Sæturnesdæg’, which was actually borrowed from Latin. ‘Saturday’ translates into ‘Saturn’s day’ and it is a result of the four centuries of the Roman presence in Britain.
A.M. or P.M.?
These common abbreviations represent the Latin phrases ‘ante meridiem’ (meaning ‘before midday’) and ‘post meridiem’ (meaning ‘after midday’). They have been in use in English since the 17th century. The use of A.M. and P.M. dates back to some of the earliest sundials, which is why the meridian is set at noon rather than at midnight.
HOW JANUARY GOT ITS NAME
Have you ever wondered how the months of the year got their names? It may be interesting to know, so let’s begin with January!
January was named after Janus, the Roman god of beginnings, protector of gates and doorways. Janus was depicted with two faces, one looking into the past, the other into the future, and so he seemed to be a good choice for the first thirty-one days of the year.
There is also another explanation according to which January was named after the Latin word for door (ianua), since the month is the door to the year. Interestingly, January was not always the first month of the year as ancient Romans used a different system. Traditionally, the Roman calendar consisted of only 10 months and winter was considered a monthless period. March was originally the first month in the old Roman calendar and January became the first month of the calendar year between 700 and 450 BC.
HOW FEBRUARY GOT ITS NAME
The name of the second month of the year comes from the Latin word ‘februa’. ‘Februa’ was the Roman festival of purification held on the 15th day of this month.
February is quite special because it is the shortest month and the only one with a changeable number of days. Every four years, we add an extra day to the calendar in the form of February 29, also known as Leap Day.
This extra day is built into the calendar to make sure that it stays in line with the Earth’s movement around the Sun. The modern calendar contains 365 days, but the actual time it takes for our planet to orbit the Sun is a bit longer— about 365.24 days. The difference might seem insignificant, but over decades the missing six hours per year can add up. Thus, in order to ensure consistency with the astronomical year, it is necessary to add an extra day to make up for the lost time.
Groundhog Day, celebrated on February 2nd, is a popular tradition in the United States. On this day the groundhog named Phil comes out of his hole in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, after a long winter sleep to look for his shadow.
If Phil sees his shadow, we’re supposed to have six more weeks of winter. If he doesn’t see it, winter is supposed to end earlier. According to National Climatic Data, Phil’s prediction’s have been correct 39 percent of the time.
Interestingly, February 2nd has long been celebrated in different cultures. The American tradition dates back to 1887, and although the origins are not clear, it shares similarities with Candlemas Day, which is on Feb. 2, too and also marks the midpoint between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. On Candlemas Day, priests blessed candles needed for winter and distributed them to the people. It was believed that if the day was sunny and clear, people could expect a long and cold winter, but if the sky was cloudy, spring would arrive soon.
Ancient Pagans also celebrated a holiday called Imbolc on February 2nd, as a way to mark the midpoint between the solstice and the equinox, which was considered the real beginning of spring.
SHROVE TUESDAY OR PANCAKE DAY
Shrove Tuesday is celebrated in Britain and in many countries around the world. It always falls 47 days before Easter Sunday, so the date changes from year to year, and in 2017 it is celebrated on 28th February. In the UK the day is called Pancake Day, and in France and the USA it is known as Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday.
Where does the name come from?
Shrove Tuesday is the day before Lent, which starts on Ash Wednesday. Lent was a time of fasting and repenting of sins, when Christians did not eat much and went to confession to be ‘shriven’ or absolved from their sins. Since people didn’t eat rich foods during Lent, the last day of carnival was the final opportunity to feast on such delicacies. Thus, everyone made and ate pancakes. Pancake racing is a popular Pancake Day tradition in the UK. People run in races with a pancake in a pan, and they toss it while running – which is not easy! In some pancake races the participants also dress up in funny outfits.
Easter is a Christian holiday celebrated by millions of people around the world to commemorate the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. It is a movable feast, which means that its date changes each year, and it corresponds with the first Sunday following the full moon after the spring equinox. Interestingly, most historians agree that Easter was originally a pagan festival, and the way we set the date of the holiday also has pagan roots. The word ‘Easter’ itself is of Saxon origin, and Eostre – also known as Ostara, Austra or Eastra – was the goddess of spring, in whose honour sacrifices were offered at spring equinox on March 21st each year when light is equal to darkness. And what about the Easter bunny and eggs? Well, they have pagan origins, too. Eostre, the goddess of spring, was often presented with the hare, an animal that is associated with spring and fertility. The egg is also an ancient symbol, which represents spring, fertility and rebirth, and was present in many different cultures. When early Christian missionaries tried to convert the pagan Saxon tribes to Christianity, they decided to spread their religious message by allowing them to continue to celebrate their feasts – however, to do so in a Christian manner. As it happened, the pagan festival of Eastre occurred at the same time of year as the Christian observance of the resurrection of Christ, so it made sense to change the festival and make it a Christian holiday. Many of the pagan customs associated with the celebration of spring were originally practised alongside Christian traditions, but they eventually became absorbed by Christianity, as symbols of the resurrection of Jesus. However, the ancient name remained, even though it was eventually changed to its modern spelling, Easter.
THE HISTORY OF CHRISTMAS
Christmas is celebrated all over the world by exchanging gifts, decorating Christmas trees, attending church services, meeting with family and friends and waiting for presents from Santa Claus. And how did it all begin?
Centuries before the arrival of Jesus, pagan Europeans had their own celebrations in the dark days of winter. In Scandinavia, they celebrated Yule, Germans honoured the pagan god Oden, and in Rome people observed Saturnalia—a holiday in honour of Saturn, which was held between December 17 and 25. Early Christians did not celebrate Christmas at all and they could not agree on which day Jesus was born as no specific date was given in the Bible. When Christianity started to spread, old pagan festivals were replaced by new ones and the final day of Saturnalia was selected as the birthday of Jesus Christ. In the beginning people celebrated Christmas with wild and loud parties – very similar to the old pagan festivals. This led religious purists to oppose such celebrations and Christmas was banned by the Puritans: it was illegal to observe it in Massachusetts in the 17th century and those who broke the law had to pay a fine of five shillings – which was a fortune at that time!
Christmas as we know it today did not really begin until the beginning of the 19th century.
A few days before Christmas in 1834, Charles Dickens published ‘A Christmas Carol’ which became an instant success and contributed to the growing popularity of the holiday. Prince Albert of Germany, after his marriage to Queen Victoria, brought the tradition of decorating Christmas trees to England and when a picture of the royal family around a Christmas tree was published in 1848 in newspapers, the tradition caught on for good.
Christmas became the commercial holiday as we know it today in the 20th century. Interestingly, Santa Claus who initially wore different colours, was pictured as a jolly old man in a red and white suit in a Coca-Cola ad in 1930, and has been wearing it ever since.
Halloween is one of the oldest and most popular holidays celebrated today. Some people view it as a time for fun, trick-or-treating and parties, while others view it as an evil pagan ritual. How did it all begin?
Halloween was originally a Celtic festival known as Samhain, which dates back to over 2000 years ago. It was celebrated on October 31st – the last day of the Celtic calendar. Celts believed that the spirits of the dead returned to walk the earth on that day, and they left food and wine for the ghosts so that they would not hurt the living or destroy their crops. They built sacred bonfires and put on animal heads and skins. Over time, when Christianity came to Europe, the church wanted to convert pagans and replace their pagan celebrations with new Christian holidays. In 1000 AD the church made November 2nd All Souls’ Day – a day to honour the dead. All Hallows Eve is the evening before All Saints Day and it was celebrated similarly to Samhain, with big bonfires, parades, and dressing up in costumes as saints, angels and devils. All Saints Day was also called All Hallows and the night before it was called All Hallows Eve, and later Halloween.
Halloween became popular in America in the second half of the 19th century, when due to widespread famine in Ireland, the USA was flooded with Irish immigrants who brought their traditions with them. Americans began to dress up in costumes and go from house to house asking for sweets or money, and the practice eventually became today’s ‘trick-or-treating’.
Nowadays, Halloween is the second largest commercial holiday in the USA after Christmas.
Thanksgiving Day in the United States is celebrated on the fourth Thursday in November. It is a day when Americans give thanks for all the blessings received during the year and honour the early settlers and their first harvest feast.
The holiday started in New England and it dates back to 1621 – the year after the Pilgrims arrived in North America. In 1620, the Pilgrims left Plymouth in England on a ship called the Mayflower. The ship’s 102 passengers were religious separatists looking for a new home in America, where they could practice their religion freely. On December 11, 1620, after 66 days at sea, the Pilgrims reached a place in North America which they called Plymouth Rock. The first winter was very difficult for the settlers. They had little food, many of them got sick and about half of them died before spring. The survivors turned for help to the local Indians, who were very friendly and taught the settlers how to build shelters, hunt and catch fish, plant corn, pumpkin and other crops. Things got better for the Pilgrims in 1621 when the harvest turned out to be abundant and so they decided to celebrate and give thanks to God. In the fall of 1621, the Plymouth colonists invited the Indians to their harvest feast, which lasted for three days. The custom of celebrating Thanksgiving soon spread from Plymouth to other New England colonies, and in 1863 Abraham Lincoln officially set aside the last Thursday of November as the national day for Thanksgiving. In many American households today, Thanksgiving is mainly a family celebration. Traditional Thanksgiving food usually includes roast turkey, mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie. It is estimated that about 46 million turkeys are killed in the United States each year for Thanksgiving. Interestingly, since the first half of the 20th century, presidents of the United States have ‘pardoned’ or saved the life of one or two Thanksgiving turkeys each year, sending the birds to a farm for retirement.
POLISH WORDS IN ENGLISH
Many words in the English language come from other languages – and some of them were borrowed from Polish!
One such word is SPRUCE (świerk) which entered the English language from the Polish name of Prussia or Prusy – which is part of Poland today.
How did it happen? When merchants from Prussia who sold lumber in England were asked where the type of wood had come from, they said: z Prus – which means from Prussia. It sounded like spruce in English and eventually became the English name of this particular tree. Other English words of Polish origin include: babka, bigos, kielbasa, konik, ogonek and, of course, pierogi.
A BIT OF NEWS
According to popular belief, the word ‘news’ derives from the four cardinal directions: North, East, West and South (NEWS).
While this explanation seems to make sense, it isn’t true. The word ‘news’ was first used around the 14th century and it comes from the word ‘new’ or ‘new things’. Before that time, instead of saying ‘news’, English speakers generally used the word ‘tidings’.
Interestingly, ‘news’ is uncountable, which means that it is followed by a singular verb. That is why we say, ‘no news is good news’, ‘some news’, ‘a bit of news’ or ‘a piece of news’.
And here’s some vocabulary to remember:
Breaking news – news that is arriving about events that have just happened
Break the news to somebody – be the first to tell somebody some bad news
Tidings – some news.