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More Than Just Fireworks: Celebrating 6 National Days

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Monday was Australia Day. In India, it was Republic Day. While both are national holidays, the reasons for their celebration couldn't be more different. So how does a country decide which is the day for fireworks, parades, marching bagpipers, and the odd display of nuclear-capable missiles? And why? There are more than 190 countries in the world. We decided to explore the national days of six of them.

1. Australia Day "“ January 26

Like the 13 colonies that formed the United States, the British colonies that were settled on the Australian continent after 1788 didn't originally see themselves as parts of a larger country. But unlike the American colonies and a host of other one-time British possessions, Australia didn't struggle for its independence. Perhaps the absence of that struggle is one reason it took more than 200 years for all the continent's states and territories to agree to celebrate Australia Day together as a public holiday each Jan. 26th.

It was on Jan. 26, 1788, that the Union Jack was first raised in Sydney Cove, as a fleet of 11 convict ships were anchored to begin British colonization of the territory they called New South Wales "“ the eastern half of the continent. By the early 19th century, those convicts and their descendants had begun to celebrate the foundation of Sydney and New South Wales with annual anniversary dinners.

It wasn't until 1818 that the continent was given the name Australia. In 1888, representatives of the five other Australian colonies traveled to Sydney to celebrate the centennial of the colony's founding.

In 1901, the Australian colonies joined as a federation within the British Empire, and there was some jostling over what the national day would be. In Victoria, in southeast Australia and home to the city of Melbourne, an organization called the Australian Natives' Association "“ referring not to the aboriginal peoples of the continent, but to the descendants of the original colonists "“ worked to promote Jan. 26 as the country's national day.

In 1931, Victoria adopted the date as Australia Day, while other states called it Foundation Day. In New South Wales, where the story began, Jan. 26 was Anniversary Day. Still, by 1935, the timing of the celebrations was synchronized. And by 1994 the national celebration of Australia Day was established. The focus of the day was shifted from Sydney, where the nation's story began, to Canberra, the national capital.

2. India: Republic Day "“ January 26

This year the elephants won't be marching in New Delhi. The jewel-laden pachyderms are a beloved part of the Republic Day parade "“ even carrying children who are the recipients of bravery awards. But the defense ministry decided to take the elephants off the invite list after pressure from animal rights activists and because the animals have a tendency of "going slightly berserk," according to a spokesman.

The national day of India, home to one of the world's oldest civilizations, celebrates cutting its last colonial ties on Jan. 26, 1950, after more than a century of British rule. India achieved independence from Britain on Aug. 15, 1947 (marked on calendars as the more minor Independence Day). But it wasn't until three years later that Indians ratified their constitution and inaugurated their first president, replacing Britain's King George VI as head of state.

Jan. 26 already was a significant date in the movement for Indian independence. On that day in 1930, the Indian National Congress symbolically declared independence from Britain. So 20 years later, Jan. 26 was a ready-made date to complete in reality what had begun symbolically.

republicday.jpgRepublic Day is a government-sponsored event that features a military parade down the Rajpath, the ceremonial avenue in New Delhi. In 2008, French President Nicolas Sarkozy was guest of honor at the parade, which showcased India's latest military hardware, including nuclear-capable missiles.

Celebrations also include a parade of floats from the various Indian states, folk dancing competitions and displays of Malkhamb, an ancient form of gymnastics involving balancing on a pole.

3. Guyana: Republic Day/Mashramani -- February 23

A South American country that looks to the Caribbean. A diverse population that is 50 percent East Indian, 36 percent black, and 7 percent Amerindian (what Americans call Native American). Guyana uses its national day to build ethnic unity.

Guyana became independent from Great Britain in 1966, but retained nominal ties to the crown. It severed those ties on Feb. 23, 1970, and declared itself a "cooperative republic."

The creators of Guyana's Republic Day looked to Trinidad's Carnival for inspiration, but to give it a local identity they gave it a new name. They settled on Mashramani, popularly called Mash. It's derived from an Arawak (Amerindian) word meaning "celebration after a successful cooperative effort."

In the capital, Georgetown, Mash activities include a Calypso competition, a parade of costumed participants, floats and "towering stacks of speakers that line the streets," according to Guyana by Kirk Smock. There is also an early-morning ceremony, "hoisting the Golden Arrowhead," which refers to Guyana's flag.

Mash has its corporate cheerleaders, and the theme of this year's celebration seems to have been written in Chamber of Commerce boosterese: "One Dream, One Celebration, One Design in 2009."

4. Zimbabwe: Independence Day "“ April 18

No country came out of the colonial period with more promise than Zimbabwe, but that promise has never been realized. The country became independent of white minority rule and British colonialism on April 18, 1980. Ever since, it's been impossible for the southern African nation to win independence from President Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe's first and only leader, who took a relatively prosperous country with a bright future and has presided over its utter collapse.

Independence Day is celebrated with parades, dancing and singing, political rallies, and fireworks.

At the first Independence Day celebration in 1980, reggae star Bob Marley performed his song "Zimbabwe," as Mugabe and Britain's Prince Charles watched. The performance was interrupted when tear gas began blowing through the stadium where the celebration was being held, as police fought Zimbabweans who had not been invited to the concert, but were trying to enter the stadium.

By 1982, Mugabe was rubbing out his opponents and rigging elections, tactics he continued using through last March's polling, which the opposition won. Nearly a year later, though, after a recount, a run-off and a series of power-sharing negotiations leading to a series of power-sharing compromises, Mugabe is still very much in charge.

Official mismanagement and corruption have led to economic collapse and serious food shortages in Zimbabwe. Schools and hospitals are closed, and a cholera epidemic attests to the breakdown of basic infrastructure. Inflation rages at 321 million percent "“ last year the government issued a 100-billion-Zimbabwe dollar bill. Last week, a 100-trillion-dollar note was introduced.

5. Portugal Day "“ June 10

Portugal has a number of historical dates that could easily qualify as its national day. In picking Dia de Camões, de Portugal e das Comunidades Portuguesas ("Day of Camões, Portugal, and the Portuguese Communities"), the country has chosen to commemorate the death in 1580 of its national poet, Luis de Camões. Camões wrote the epic poem Os Lusíadas (1572), whose central theme is the discovery of the sea route to India by Vasco da Gama.

In 1580, the year Camões died, Portugal came under the control of Spain. In 1640, Portugal regained its independence, which is celebrated each Dec. 1 as Restoration Day.

Oct. 1 is known Republic Day. It marks the overthrow of the Portuguese monarchy in 1910, and the establishment of republican government.

Republican government didn't necessarily mean democratic government. It was during the long dictatorship of António de Oliveira Salazar (1932-1968) that June 10 became Portugal's national holiday and the long-dead poet entered the picture. In fascist style, the dictatorship used Camões as a symbol of the Portuguese race, and in 1944 Salazar referred to June 10 as Dia da Raça "“ the "Day of the Portuguese Race."

The dictatorship outlasted Salazar and was finally overthrown in 1974. (April 25 is celebrated as Liberation Day.) Camões then became the centerpiece of the June 10 celebration, which was later broadened to include Portugal itself and the numerous Portuguese communities worldwide.

One hotbed of June 10 festivities is Rhode Island. That small state has the highest percentage of Portuguese-Americans in the United States "“ about 10 percent of the state's population is of Portuguese heritage. In typical American holiday style, when June 10 falls during the week, the celebration is shifted to the weekend to encourage larger crowds. Farther north, a 2001 proclamation declared June 10 as Portugal Day in Canada.

6. Indonesia: Independence Day "“ August 17

World War II was over, although the vanquished Japanese were still nominally in charge, when Indonesian nationalist leader Sukarno read a proclamation of independence on Aug. 17, 1945.

The Dutch, who had ruled what was called the Dutch East Indies for 300 years, were not ready to lose their colony again, after being expelled by the Japanese. Over the next two years, the Dutch fought to suppress Indonesian independence.

bike-ind.jpgBy 1949, negotiations were underway at the Hague, and on Dec. 27, 1949, after a 10-week-long peace conference, Dutch and Indonesian representatives signed an agreement setting up the "United States of Indonesia."

The concept of Indonesia as a nation-state was new. Even the name Indonesia was new. It was created from the Greek Indos meaning Indian and nesos for islands.

Among Independence Day activities are egg-and-spoon and sack races, and panjat pinang, in which a player climbs a greasy pole to get a prize "“ like a bike. Public buildings are dressed in red and white bunting, reflecting the two-stripe Indonesian flag.

In a 2005 visit to Indonesia on the eve of Independence Day, Dutch Foreign Minister Ben Bot said the Netherlands now recognized that Indonesian independence occurred on Aug. 17, 1945, when Sukarno read his proclamation.
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These are only thumbnail sketches and they just scratch the surface of these countries' rich history and culture. If you have intimate knowledge of one of these or other national days and how it is celebrated, please tell us more in the comments.

David Holzel has not visited any of these six countries (yet), but really likes the idea of holidays in honor of writers. You can read more of his writing at The Jewish Angle.

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10 Memorable Neil deGrasse Tyson Quotes
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Neil deGrasse Tyson is America's preeminent badass astrophysicist. He's a passionate advocate for science, NASA, and education. He's also well-known for a little incident involving Pluto. And the man holds nearly 20 honorary doctorates (in addition to his real one). In honor of his 59th birthday, here are 10 of our favorite Neil deGrasse Tyson quotes.


"The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it."
—From Real Time with Bill Maher.


"As a fraction of your tax dollar today, what is the total cost of all spaceborne telescopes, planetary probes, the rovers on Mars, the International Space Station, the space shuttle, telescopes yet to orbit, and missions yet to fly?' Answer: one-half of one percent of each tax dollar. Half a penny. I’d prefer it were more: perhaps two cents on the dollar. Even during the storied Apollo era, peak NASA spending amounted to little more than four cents on the tax dollar." 
—From Space Chronicles


"Once upon a time, people identified the god Neptune as the source of storms at sea. Today we call these storms hurricanes ... The only people who still call hurricanes acts of God are the people who write insurance forms."
—From Death by Black Hole


"Countless women are alive today because of ideas stimulated by a design flaw in the Hubble Space Telescope." (Editor's note: technology used to repair the Hubble Space Telescope's optical problems led to improved technology for breast cancer detection.)
—From Space Chronicles



"I knew Pluto was popular among elementary schoolkids, but I had no idea they would mobilize into a 'Save Pluto' campaign. I now have a drawer full of hate letters from hundreds of elementary schoolchildren (with supportive cover letters from their science teachers) pleading with me to reverse my stance on Pluto. The file includes a photograph of the entire third grade of a school posing on their front steps and holding up a banner proclaiming, 'Dr. Tyson—Pluto is a Planet!'"
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit


"In [Titanic], the stars above the ship bear no correspondence to any constellations in a real sky. Worse yet, while the heroine bobs ... we are treated to her view of this Hollywood sky—one where the stars on the right half of the scene trace the mirror image of the stars in the left half. How lazy can you get?"
—From Death by Black Hole


"On Friday the 13th, April 2029, an asteroid large enough to fill the Rose Bowl as though it were an egg cup will fly so close to Earth that it will dip below the altitude of our communication satellites. We did not name this asteroid Bambi. Instead, we named it Apophis, after the Egyptian god of darkness and death."
—From Space Chronicles


"[L]et us not fool ourselves into thinking we went to the Moon because we are pioneers, or discoverers, or adventurers. We went to the Moon because it was the militaristically expedient thing to do."
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit


Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
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Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at:

"Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life."


A still from Steven Spielberg's E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
Universal Studios
"[I]f an alien lands on your front lawn and extends an appendage as a gesture of greeting, before you get friendly, toss it an eightball. If the appendage explodes, then the alien was probably made of antimatter. If not, then you can proceed to take it to your leader."
—From Death by Black Hole
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40 Fun Facts About Sesame Street
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Now in its 47th season, Sesame Street is one of television's most iconic programs—and it's not just for kids. We're big fans of the Street, and to prove it, here are some of our favorite Sesame facts from previous stories and our Amazing Fact Generator.

Sesame Workshop

1. Oscar the Grouch used to be orange. Jim Henson decided to make him green before season two.

2. How did Oscar explain the color change? He said he went on vacation to the very damp Swamp Mushy Muddy and turned green overnight.

3. During a 2004 episode, Cookie Monster said that before he started eating cookies, his name was Sid.

4. In 1980, C-3PO and R2-D2 visited Sesame Street. They played games, sang songs, and R2-D2 fell in love with a fire hydrant.

5. Mr. Snuffleupagus has a first name—Aloysius

6. Ralph Nader stopped by in 1988 and sang "a consumer advocate is a person in your neighborhood."

7. Caroll Spinney said he based Oscar's voice on a cab driver from the Bronx who brought him to the audition.

8. In 1970, Ernie reached #16 on the Billboard Hot 100 with the timeless hit "Rubber Duckie."

9. One of Count von Count's lady friends is Countess von Backwards, who's also obsessed with counting but likes to do it backwards.

10. Sesame Street made its Afghanistan debut in 2011 with Baghch-e-Simsim (Sesame Garden). Big Bird, Grover and Elmo are involved.

11. According to Muppet Wiki, Oscar the Grouch and Count von Count were minimized on Baghch-e-Simsim "due to cultural taboos against trash and vampirism."

12. Before Giancarlo Esposito was Breaking Bad's super intense Gus Fring, he played Big Bird's camp counselor Mickey in 1982.

13. Thankfully, those episodes are available on YouTube.

14. How big is Big Bird? 8'2". (Pictured with First Lady Pat Nixon.)

15. In 2002, the South African version (Takalani Sesame) added an HIV-positive Muppet named Kami.

16. Six Republicans on the House Commerce Committee wrote a letter to PBS president Pat Mitchell warning that Kami was not appropriate for American children, and reminded Mitchell that their committee controlled PBS' funding.

17. Sesame Street's resident game show host Guy Smiley was using a pseudonym. His real name was Bernie Liederkrantz.

18. Bert and Ernie have been getting questioned about their sexuality for years. Ernie himself, as performed by Steve Whitmere, has weighed in: “All that stuff about me and Bert? It’s not true. We’re both very happy, but we’re not gay,”

19. A few years later, Bert (as performed by Eric Jacobson) answered the same question by saying, “No, no. In fact, sometimes we are not even friends; he can be a pain in the neck.”

20. In the first season, both Superman and Batman appeared in short cartoons produced by Filmation. In one clip, Batman told Bert and Ernie to stop arguing and take turns choosing what’s on TV.

21. In another segment, Superman battled a giant chimp.

22. Telly was originally "Television Monster," a TV-obsessed Muppet whose eyes whirled around as he watched.

23. According to Sesame Workshop, Elmo is the only non-human to testify before Congress.

24. He lobbied for more funding for music education, so that "when Elmo goes to school, there will be the instruments to play."

25. In the early 1990s, soon after Jim Henson’s passing, a rumor circulated that Ernie would be killed off in order to teach children about death, as they'd done with Mr. Hooper.

26. According to Snopes, the rumor may have spread thanks to New Hampshire college student, Michael Tabor, who convinced his graduating class to wear “Save Ernie” beanies and sign a petition to persuade Sesame Workshop to let Ernie live.

27. By the time Tabor was corrected, the newspapers had already picked up the story.

28. Sesame Street’s Executive Producer Carol-Lynn Parente joined Sesame Workshop as a production assistant and has worked her way to the top.

29. Originally, Count von Count was more sinister. He could hypnotize and stun people.

30. According to Sesame Workshop, all Sesame Street's main Muppets have four fingers except Cookie Monster, who has five.

31. The episode with Mr. Hooper's funeral aired on Thanksgiving Day in 1983. That date was chosen because families were more likely to be together at that time, in case kids had questions or needed emotional support.

32. Mr. Hooper’s first name was Harold.

33. Big Bird sang "Bein' Green" at Jim Henson's memorial service.

34. As Chris Higgins put it, the performance was "devastating."

35. Oscar's Israeli counterpart is Moishe Oofnik, whose last name means “grouch” in Hebrew.

36. Nigeria's version of Cookie Monster eats yams. His catchphrase: "ME WANT YAM!"

37. Sesame's Roosevelt Franklin ran a school, where he spoke in scat and taught about Africa. Some parents hated him, so in 1975 he got the boot, only to inspire Gob Bluth’s racist puppet Franklin on Arrested Development 28 years later.

38. Our good friend and contributor Eddie Deezen was the voice of Donnie Dodo in the 1985 classic Follow That Bird.

39. Cookie Monster evolved from The Wheel-Stealer—a snack-pilfering puppet Jim Henson created to promote Wheels, Crowns and Flutes in the 1960s.

40. This puppet later was seen eating a computer in an IBM training film and on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Thanks to Stacy Conradt, Joe Hennes, Drew Toal, and Chris Higgins for their previous Sesame coverage!

An earlier version of this article appeared in 2012.


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