June 30, 2012 - Le Tour de France Day

This exciting and popular bicycle race is held in France every year, and today is Day 1 of the 2012 race.
Riders and teams from around the world will race for three weeks and will pedal 3,497 kilometers (more than 2,000 miles), including nine flat “stages” (day-long segments) and nine mountain stages. There will be only two days of rest, while being transported from the end of one stage to the beginning of another.

Hmm...pedaling your bicycle as fast as you can in the Alps or Pyrenees Mountains, and finishing a day's race at the summit of a mountain, sounds tough enough—to do it for three weeks sounds impossible! Yet people do it, and they love it, and they come back year after year.

This official website shows a map of the year's racecourse. The race will finish on July 22 in Paris, with riders traveling one of the most famous avenues in the world, the Champs-Elysees, to the Arc de Triomphe (Arch of Triumph).


Ride your bicycle today. (Wear a helmet, of course!)

Watch some of the race, if you can. NBC Sports has some race coverage in the U.S. and provides videos on its website. 

Learn more about France. Kid Activities has a lot of ideas—including a Slowest-Bicycle-Wins “race” to honor the Tour de France. 

Also on this date:

Did you hear that Nik Wallenda crossed Niagara Falls two weeks ago (Friday, June 15) for the first time in history? Well, Wallenda's crossing was at the widest, wildest, wettest spot. This 1859 crossing (by a guy named Gravelet) was a lot tamer because it was higher up on the river. (But Gravelet later crossed the Falls on a tightrope while blindfolded, then while pushing a wheelbarrow, then on stilts, and then while carrying another man!!!)

June 29, 2012 - Anniversary of Mikhail Baryshnikov's Defection

– 1974

He is one of the greatest ballet dancers of all times.

He is also an accomplished choreographer and actor, familiar to many for his roles in movies like The Turning Point (1977) and White Nights (1985), and for his appearances in the popular TV show Sex and the City (last season).

And on this date in 1974, he became a traitor to his country!

Well, that is how some people may have described what happened. Most of us would say that he escaped a repressive nation and became free.

You see, Baryshnikov was born in Russia, which was part of the Soviet Union (or the USSR). This was a nation that limited and controlled many things about its citizens' lives, including what sort of work they did and their movements in and out of the USSR. Baryshnikov's talent as a dancer was recognized, and he was able to achieve a lot there in his country—but who knows if he would have been allowed to choreograph, act, or travel as he wished? Still, the USSR loved to promote its dancers (and athletes and musicians) as the best in the world, and part of doing that involved letting those amazing dancers (and athletes and musicians) travel and perform elsewhere.

On one of those tours, while in Canada with the Bolshoi Ballet, Mikhail Baryshnikov requested political asylum and announced to the dance world that he would not go back to the USSR. This defection was a blow to the USSR—it was a permanent removal of Baryshnikov's allegiance to his former country.

Baryshnikov joined the Royal Winnipeg Ballet in Canada, but he soon went to the United States and joined the American Ballet Theater. He also worked with the New York City Ballet and England's Royal Ballet. Eventually Baryshnikov became a U.S. citizen.

Soviet Russia and East Germany and other Communist nations lost a steady trickle of their most elite artists and athletes to the U.S. or other Western nations. Baryshnikov was part of that trickle-to-freedom.

Also on this date:

June 28, 2012 - A Colonel Proves Tomatoes Are Not Poisonous

– 1820
Here's a delightful story: In 1820 Jamaican-born U.S. Colonel Robert Gibbon Johnson convinced a skeptical crowd in New Jersey that tomatoes are not poisonous, after all, by eating an entire basket of them.

His doctor warned him that he would foam and froth at the mouth and double over with appendicitis. Many in the cheering crowd thought that the colonel was a fool—that he was committing public suicide—after all, everyone knows that tomatoes are poisonous, just smell their leaves! The crowd grew and grew, as crowds often do, as the colonel kept eating more and more tomatoes, and eventually 2,000 people had gathered around him as he stood there eating tomatoes on the steps of the Salem Courthouse.

And of course, Johnson lived! The people were amazed!!! Tomatoes were proved to be edible, after all!

Here's the thing about the story: it almost certainly did not happen.

Colonel Johnson was a prominent citizen of Salem County, New Jersey, and stuff was written about him during his life—but nobody wrote about this story at the time. Some 68 years after the supposed event, someone wrote that Johnson ate a tomato in 1820. (That might have occurred, who knows? I ate a tomato two days ago. These things happen.) Somehow all the details of the story, including a specific date and location and even a quote or two, emerged from someone, somewhere, and were added to the story, and it was even dramatized as true on the national radio show “You Are There.” The story was not just printed, but reprinted and quoted and referenced over and over again—even in newspapers and scholarly journals. I'm sure that people who passed on the story believed it was true.

But historians are almost positive it didn't happen—because, if it did, there would've been a full report (or two, or more) in the days just after it happened. Colorful events don't go unmentioned for decades, and then get reported as being simple and plain and then get reported in more and more elaborate and colorful ways as the years pass—but that' s exactly what happens with legends.

Wait! Tomatoes? Poisonous?

Here's one reason that such a legend is often believed: many people in many places and times have believed that the fruit of a tomato plant, although beautiful in its smooth yellow or red skin, is poisonous. Here is the true history of tomatoes:

Tomatoes were a New-World food first brought to Europe and the rest of the Old World after Cortez conquered the Aztecs in Mexico in the early Sixteenth Century (that is, the early 1500s). Apparently some populations were early acceptors of the tomato as food; other groups grew the plant for tomatoes' ornamental value and thought the fruit to be poisonous. Names for the fruit included pomodoro (Italian for “golden apple”), pomme d'amour (French for “love apple”) and of course the English tomato, which came from the Aztec word tomatl. The British, and therefore the British colonists in North America, were holdouts and didn't include tomatoes into their diets until the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries (1700s). We know that Thomas Jefferson grew tomatoes, and his daughters left many recipes that involved tomatoes, so his family saw them as food at least by 1782.

It wasn't until after America's Civil War that tomatoes took off in popularity in the U.S. (in the second half of the 1800s). Whether most or just some Americans thought they were poisonous in 1820, by the late 1890s, tomatoes were being enthusiastically used in soups, salads, and sauces, without any cautions or reservations.

Also on this date:

Constitution Day in Ukraine 

June 27, 2012 - “Happy Birthday to You” Day

Once upon a time (in 1893), a pair of sisters wrote a simple song for their nursery school and kindergarten students. Mildred J. Hill wrote a simple tune, and Patty Smith Hill wrote some equal simple, repetitive words:
Good morning to you,
Good morning to you,
Good morning, dear children,
Good morning to all.
The two sang the catchy song with their young students, but they also published it in a songbook for children.

The song caught on. (That's the thing about catchy songs, isn't it? They catch on!)

In many classes, the young students sang the song to the teacher, so the words were changed a little – “good morning to all” became another repetition of “good morning to you,” and “dear teacher” was sung in place of “dear children.”

And somebody, somewhere, changed the song again to be a birthday song. Perhaps you have heard it somewhere?
Happy birthday to you,
Happy birthday to you,
Happy birthday dear so-and-so [insert name here],
Happy birthday to you.
Well, this latest version really caught on! It is by far the most well-known song in the English-speaking world—maybe the entire world!—and it's been used in millions of music boxes, watches, musical greeting cards, and other for-profit products. It's been sung on TV and on Broadway and in movies, in space and underwater living spaces, in homes and schools, businesses and hospitals.

(By the way, many people think that students who sang the Good Morning song spontaneously changed the lyrics at birthday parties. Which would mean that the most widely known song in the world was “written” by a bunch of five- and six-year-old kids whose names we do not know!)

Okay, here's the weird part...this super-simple, almost ubiquitous (heard everywhere) song—this song that was written in the 1800s, maybe by a bunch of kids—is still protected by copyright!


My sources are unclear about who filed copyright on “Happy Birthday to You,” when, on whose behalf. Some sources say that another Hill sister sued and received copyright protection for Patty and Mildred Hill, and that the Hill Foundation collects royalties even to this day, but another source says that the publisher of the Hill's original “Good Morning” song filed for copyright on the birthday version.

Whatever the case, it seems that some of the profit-making enterprises that use the popular birthday song do pay royalties—adding up to perhaps two million dollars worth of royalties per year! It's totally fine to sing the song in private, with small groups at birthday parties, for example, but it is technically a violation to sing it in profit-making venues with a lot of people. This is why a lot of restaurants use original songs or other birthday songs—they want to avoid any copyright lawsuits! Many movies and television shows show people singing just a few notes (apparently this is “fair use” and doesn't cost anything), but those who show people singing the entire song have to pay $10,000 for the privilege! Yikes!

By the way, copyright laws differ from nation to nation. The song will become “public domain” (free for anyone to use, even for-profit or large groups) in Europe in 2016, and it will move to public domain status in the U.S. in 2030. And, here's one more fact to confuse you: some lawyers think that the song is already in public domain, right now, because the actual “authors” of the song (who, remember, might be a bunch of kids) weren't the ones who filed for copyright.

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Djibouti's Independence Day

June 26, 2012 - National Flag Day in Romania

Today is Romania's National Flag Day, the day the nation celebrates the 6-26-1848 adoption of a red-yellow-blue tricolor flag.

Strangely, in 1960 the African nation of Chad adopted a flag that was almost identical to Romania's flag. The blue of the Chad tricolor flag is supposed to be darker, but in some photos and diagrams, I can't tell the difference!

In 2004, Chad asked the United Nations to look into the issue of there being two almost-identical flags in the world—but the president of Romania said that, no matter what, Romania wouldn't be changing its flag. Well, I don't blame the Romanians! Chad adopted the same flag that the Romanians had been using for 12 years—I think that Chad ought to make a change!

The problem with tricolor flags is that there are many that are quite similar. Take a peek at all the tricolor flags of the world. It's not terribly easy to tell at a glance if a flag is Irish, Italian, or Ivory Coast, is it?

Into vexillography?

The word vexillography means the study of flags. Check out this vexillography website, which has plenty of tips about good flag design. Oh, if only someone in Chad had known all this before that nation's flag was designed! 

Also on this date:

June 25, 2012 - Independence Day in Mozambique

In 1975, the African nation of Mozambique won its independence from Portugal.

Then it became a communist nation.

Then there was a lo-o-o-ong civil war.

Sigh. For fifteen years a war was fought between different factions of the country.

You know what civil wars do to a country, don't you? Not only did thousands of people die from fighting, thousands more died from starvation, because war tends to get in the way of growing crops. Five million people were displaced as their homes and towns were ruined. And landmines injured many people and are still a problem today.

Because of all that horrible trauma, Mozambique has a terrible economy and the lowest life expectancy in the world.

There is lots of wildlife
in Mozambique.
And really large spiders, too!

Hopefully things will continue to get better for Mozambique. The good news is that there are supposed to be wonderful rivers, lakes, forests, and grasslands, complete with elephants, water buffalos, hippopotamuses, crocodiles, zebras, and many more animals. Tourism sites manage to describe Mozambique as a paradise: It has “stunning beaches, excellent diving and magical offshore islands,” according to Lonely Planet. We are advised that, in Mozambique, you can “[g]o snorkelling around the Bazaruto Archipelago, sail on a dhow through mangrove channels or laze under the palms in the Quirimbas Archipelago, take an off-beat safari in the wilds...wander along cobbled streets past stately colonial-era buildings...sip a café espresso at a lively sidewalk café (or maybe a caipirinha at a jazz bar), watch the silversmiths at work on Ibo Island or dance to the country’s trademark marrabenta music.”

Plus, according to Bob Dylan, Mozambique is very sunny! 

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June 24, 2012 - International Fairy Day

This holiday is for collectors of fairy tales and fairy art, and for the young at heart.

We are urged to take a walk in the countryside and enjoy the magic of nature, or to cosy up to read our favorite fairy tales.

Perhaps you could dress up as a fairy and do a fairy dance or pipe a fairy tune!

Here are some of my favorite fairy tales and fairy things:

  • Many Moons,” by James Thurber, is another favorite. 
  • Those are all fairy tales, but not tales about fairies. My long-time favorite tale-about-a-fairy is “Poppy, or the Adventures of a Fairy.” This story by Anne Perez-Guerra is hard to find (and therefore expensive)—but maybe you have access to it in a library or an old family book collection. My version is from an old red-bound book series called The Children's Hour (Spencer Press), Volume 2.
  • The Flower Fairies are creations of Cicely Mary Barker, and they appear in small-format books, figurines, and many delightful products. The official website includes games, polls, and activity sheets!
  • Fairies-dot-com has a ton of fairy products on offer. I once threw a fairy-themed birthday party for my two older daughters. It's fun to get fairy lights, to make glittery wings and wands, and to eat tiny fairy cakes.

Also on this date:

June 23, 2012 - Enjoy Your Yard Day!

Today has been declared Pink Flamingo Day, a day when we are encouraged to “get flocked” and put as many pink plastic flamingos in our front yards as we can.

And we don't want to leave the backyard out, do we? It seems that today is also the “Great American Backyard Campout.”

If you are lucky enough to have a yard or two, try to find the time to enjoy it, adorn it, and even live in it.

What's the deal with all the flamingos?

June 23 is supposed to be the “birthday” of the pink plastic flamingo, and so in 2007 it was chosen as the date on which to set a world's record for most pink flamingo lawn ornaments set up in the U.S. and Canada.

Flamingo flocking is a great way to raise funds for organizations. I still have remnants of a dance-troupe flock. 

Camp in the backyard? Umm...why?

Whether it's the fun of snuggling together in a tent or the beauty of sleeping out under the stars, it can be great to do a bit of outdoor living—especially when the kitchen and bathroom are still near to hand! Here are some ideas for backyard-camping games, eats, and after-dark activities.

Also on this date: