Tag Archives: Civil War

Did you Know this About May 5th?


by Jonna ellis holston

We often think of Cinco de Mayo as the Mexican 4th of July. When in reality it was the day that the poor Mexican people pissed off the rich and powerful French.

In short, after four years of civil war, Mexico owed millions in foreign debt. President Benito Juarez suspended payments of those debts for two years so that they could recover. Napoleon III took advantage and sent almost 6,000 highly trained and well equipped soldiers to secure said debt, yet on May 5th, 1862 the brave, unorganized fighters of Mexico crushed that French Army at The Battle of Puebla, probably yelling Arriba… Up… Go onward!

ONE BATTLE against (what was considered) the best army in the world, an army which had not been defeated in almost fifty years. Embarrassed, Napoleon sent in the French Navy, 30,000 more troops who went on to occupy Mexico City but that ONE battle became a symbol of Mexican pride and did a great service to America.

“Service to America,” you ask. “Why was this HUGELY important to the US?”

Because we were in the midst of our own Civil War and according to scholars and historians, the French planned to use Mexico as a base to help the Confederates against the Union Soldiers and IF THEY HAD we would live in a very different society today. Mexican guerilla freedom fighters continued to harass the French and in doing so, they thwarted French plans to INVADE our country.

So go out and party, celebrate! Have some tacos, fajitas, a margarita or two, and maybe thank a Mexican person because without their persistence we might not be a United States of America.

Feliz Cinco de Mayo!



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Hex Signs–folk art or mystery?

I was fascinated when I first saw hex signs on PA barns, shortly after moving to Central PA about 25 years ago. As I’ve been interested in myth and folklore for my entire life, I thought I saw a recognizable system in those repeating star patterns and sun wheels which decorated barns in Berks, Lehigh, Schuykill and Lebanon counties. Back into the distant past, all over Europe (and Asia, too), these symbols were used for luck, for fertility and for warding against evil.

 Among scholars there is ample disagreement on this subject, but on balance, I think it’s safe to say that these signs arrived with early German settlers. Perhaps they were North Germans or Silesians, not Rhinelanders or Austrians, but it’s not clear whether all or only a few groups brought the hex sign to the US. It certainly wasn’t the Mennonite Amish, (who passed through Switzerland) although, sometimes, in travel brochures and on restaurant placemats, the Old Order Amish and hex signs are pictured together. In fact, the AmishHand-me-Down Bride forbid ornamentation, so you definitely won’t see hex signs on their barns.(Not for nothing are they called: “Plain People.”)

Most likely, ordinary Lutherans who had been farmers in the Old Country brought the symbols with them as part of a hoary rural tradition. These Volk loved to decorate just about everything, from chairs to doorsills—and they did. At any rate, many believe these symbols were an ancient German artistic tradition—aesthetics–rather than some underground religion. In the old country, “hexes” appear on everything from chairs and hope chests to beams, from birth certificates to gable end panels.

After the Civil War, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania attempted to complete assimilation of the persistently German speaking communities by requiring “English only” in the public schools. In the book “Hex Signs” by Yoder & Graves, the authors claim that in reaction, hex signs were even more widely painted upon barns and incorporated into architectural details, such as decorative trim, during this period. Psychologically, during a time of stress, it became a necessary form of self-definition for German descendants.

Many surviving barn signs appear to have been painted in the post civil war era. In modern times, the hex sign has grown in popularity, and in familiarity, too. The use of the signs is far more wide spread than in the last century. This is partly due to the efforts of regional tourism and partly due to a widely renewed interest in folklore and myth.

Many stores in Lancaster County sell hex signs, and many new ones–obviously not traditional–for instance one which incorporates shamrocks–have been devised for the tourist industry.

A brief guide to hex symbols

 Five pointed stars = goddess symbols Goddess equals fertility and protection So if you multiply the angles, you are multiplying the magic and therefore, the protection.

The Rosette is perhaps star and flower combined

Sun symbols—swastika—for motion, the never-ending cycle of seasonal nature. Sun light is preeminently important to a farming people who live at high latitudes, like the Germans.

Rain—raindrops appear in spirals or circles Sun and Rain = fertility and prosperity = many crops, food, animals Sprigs of wheat are a direct representation of what the farmer wants.

Hearts- traditionally for affection, unity and love, and also the Tulip, a symbol which must have slipped across the border from Holland for prosperity, and perfection.

Birds—the ancient love bird symbol, a happy marriage symbol For my cover, Lejoy Rothke and I decided to create our own hex sign, incorporating all the old time elements. In fact, these days, many craftspeople have copyrighted their own versions of the originals. We didn’t want to step on anyone’s toes, so we created one and made it part of the story. At the end of “Hand-me-Down Bride,” the young hero asks a local barn painter to make a hex for his door. He’s not only embraced the young woman of the title, but is also reconsidering his relationship to his own immigrant heritage. It seemed to be a suitable ending for this very American story.



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