Sunday, March 30, 2008

Spring Break through the Ages

Here I am in the middle of spring break, that time of year when students and teachers get to take a much-needed break from each other and soak up the springtime sun, if it ever stops raining.

The spring break tradition goes way back in history. In the modern U.S., spring break brings to mind Florida beaches, or California ones for those who live on the West Coast, fun in the sun, too much drinking, and wet t-shirt contests.

The first spring breaks occurred in ancient Egypt when the pharaohs decreed that those learning how to build pyramids could take a week off to recuperate. In 590 BCE, however, the tradition almost ended as soon as it began when unruly slave teens knocked over one of the aqueducts that supplied water to the city, dowsing the partying students with gallons of fresh water.

The pharaoh became so enraged that he beheaded the ring leaders and sent the others back to their lessons. It did, however, provide a beginning for the wet t-shirt contests that students often enjoy today.

Some ancient manuscripts, that the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE decided to leave out of the bible, describe how Jesus gave his disciples a spring break two weeks before the Last Supper. He was disappointed that his students decided to use their break time for recreation instead of meditation. He scolded them upon their return, which left one of them, Judas, rather bitter.

Middle Eastern spring breaks went out of style during the third century CE as it became apparent that much of the Middle East does not actually have a spring.

The tradition continued in full force, however, throughout Europe during the medieval period. Feudal schoolchildren relished their time away from learning how to become good peasants. They would often gather in groups of a hundred or more, ransack their lord’s livestock and journey down to the Mediterranean for a splash.

But spring break can sometimes be more than a time for rest and relaxation. Isaac Newton was on spring break from Cambridge in 1666 when, relaxing under an apple tree, an apple fell from a branch and struck him on the head, initiating his enlightenment regarding the law of gravity.

Spring break has also had some very negative consequences throughout history. In March of 1815, for example, Napoleon decided to cancel spring break for his soldiers that were in training for an important battle to come. He felt they needed to concentrate more on the war at hand than to go off partying.

In June of that year, Napoleon’s army was defeated at Waterloo by a Prussian army whose soldiers all had enjoyed spring break earlier in the year. A rested Prussian force along with Wellington’s allied army, handily defeated Napoleon’s soldiers, many of whom were still bitter about not having been allowed time off in the spring.

Unconfirmed reports also tell how soldiers from the North helped defeat the Rebel forces during the Civil War while vacationing in northern Florida in 1865. The infamous Battle of Spring Break was a turning point in the War Between the States.

As for me, I’m just enjoying my time away from my students, as I’m sure they are all very happy not to be sitting in the classroom today, learning history and science.

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