On the Feast Day

Recently I highlighted a couple of places named for holy figures because they were discovered on those particular saints’ feast days. Those included Saint Martin in Southernmost Bangladesh and various Christmas designations discovered on December 25. Many of the European nations with strong seafaring traditions participated. The Spanish, Portuguese, French and English all "discovered" distant lands and used saints as inspiration for place names. Only locations found and named on actual feast days interested me for this exercise. I wondered how many I could find. Well, I found a lot. I don’t pretend to include an exhaustive list although I think I recorded several of the most popular ones.

Here are a few presented in chronological order by feast day.

Saint Helena of Constantinople; May 21

St. Helena Island (NASA, International Space Station Science, 5/7/09)
St. Helena Island. Photo by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center on Flickr (cc)

Saint Helena of Constantinople earned reverence primarily because she gave birth to Constantine the Great, the first Christian emperor of the Roman empire. She influenced the son who in turn allowed Christianity to flourish without persecution across a massive geographic area. That right there probably should have been enough. However, legends needed to be created and stories needed to be told to further accentuate her sainthood. As the tale went, she traveled to Jerusalem where she supposedly discovered the true cross. Actually the stories said she found all three crosses used in the crucifixion of Jesus and the two thieves executed with him. A miracle revealed Jesus’ specific cross, so they said.

A remote island in the South Atlantic, way out in the ocean all by itself between Brazil and Africa, took her name. This place was so far in the middle of nowhere that the British exiled Napoleon Bonaparte there in 1815 for the remainder of his life so he couldn’t cause any more trouble. Today St. Helena (map) forms part of a British Overseas Territory, Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha.

Conventional wisdom noted for the longest time that João da Nova — sailing on behalf of the Portuguese — discovered and named St. Helena on her feast day, May 21, 1502. Recent research seemed to cast doubt on that claim, however. It may have been mathematically impossible. Still, many sources continued to make the argument so I kept it on the list.

Saint John the Baptist; June 24

St John's, Newfoundland
St John's, Newfoundland. Photo by Robert Ciavarro on Flickr (cc)

I felt I probably didn’t need to provide an in-depth introduction to John the Baptist. He baptized Jesus and served as an immediate forerunner and influence. Naturally several faiths including Christianity and Islam considered him a prophet. His feast day became June 24 based on passages from the Gospel of Luke (specifically Luke 1:36 and 1:561:57). This established John’s birthday as six months before Jesus, so a simple subtraction from Christmas led to the selection of June 24.

John Cabot, an Italian explorer sailing under the English flag, arrived at Newfoundland during his 1497 voyage. He sailed into a harbor on June 24 and named it for John the Baptist. The city of St. John’s later formed there (map). Twelve Mile Circle "explored" St. Johns back in 2010 in St. John’s at Long Last. Today the province of Newfoundland and Labrador celebrates Discovery Day on the Monday closest to June 24.

Portuguese explorers first recorded the St. John River in Liberia on June 24 sometime in the 15th Century. Also the Spanish explorer Lucas Vázquez de Ayllón did the same thing at a river in South Carolina on June 24, 1520. He named the river Jordan to honor the spot where St. John baptized Jesus. Later, English settlers changed the name to the Santee River to recognize a local tribe of native inhabitants.

Saint Augustine of Hippo; August 28

St. Augustine
St. Augustine. My own photo.

Saint Augustine, one of the early Church Fathers greatly influenced Christianity through his theology and philosophy. The Hippo part came from an area he served as bishop, now in modern Algeria. He became the posthumous namesake and primary influence of the Augustinians, and his teachings greatly influenced Martin Luther and the Lutheran Church. St. Augustine died on August 28, 430, so August 28 became his annual feast day.

Spain grew concerned about French incursions on Florida and sent conquistador Pedro Menéndez de Avilés to the New World to protect its colonial claims. He spotted land on August 28, 1565, a date that coincided with St. Augustine’s feast day. In recognition, he named his settlement St. Augustine (map). I decided to feature this location because I went there a couple of years ago. Also the name of a local shop amused me: The Hyppo Gormet Ice Pops, in playful honor of St. Augustine of Hippo.

Saint Ursula; October 21

Virgin Islands 2009
Virgin Islands 2009. Photo by Mike Buedel on Flickr (cc)

Saint Ursula might have been my favorite. Well, maybe it could have been the 11,000 virgins. A couple of legends existed. In the more common one, the princess Ursula along with ten ladies in waiting — each attended by a thousand maidens — went on a pilgrimage to Rome sometime around the year 451. They arrived successfully and did whatever pious things 11,011 virtuous women would do when visiting the Pope. On the way back, however, vicious pagan Huns captured them near Cologne. Ursula refused to marry the Hun leader so he ordered all of them slaughtered. Scant evidence of such a massive carnage ever existed so modern church historians took it all with a grain of salt. October 21 became her feast day although the Roman Catholic Church removed the event from its General Roman Calendar in 1970.

Christopher Columbus, on his second voyage, encountered and named a Caribbean archipelago on October 21, 1493: Santa Úrsula y las Once Mil Vírgenes. Later cartographers shortened it down to the Virgin Islands (map). Something similar happened on October 21, 1520. Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan discovered a straight at the tip of South America that he named for himself. The cape at the end of continental South America, however, became Cabo Virgenes (Cape Virgins).

There were plenty of other places discovered on feast days. Those involved more obscure places so I’ll stop writing now.

Merry Christmas

A Merry Christmas to everyone in the Twelve Mile Circle who is celebrating today. A Happy Holiday or well wishes to everyone else as well. Every once in awhile the 12MC publishing schedule falls on Christmas day. A Christmas theme felt appropriate even with a diminished audience. Ironically, most people with enough time to read today probably don’t celebrate Christmas. Nonetheless I’m going to stick with it and plow forward anyway.

Christmas Island

Dude, Watch Out!
Dude, Watch Out!. Photo by Rebecca Dominguez on Flickr (cc)

For sure, Christmas Island needed to appear first on the list (map). Amazingly, even though the island fell not too distant from heavily-populated Java, Christmas Island remained unknown until the 17th Century. Various mariners spotted it during that time although it remained without a permanent name until 1643. Captain William Mynors of the English East India Company sailed within eyesight on Christmas day that year. Not being terribly original, Captain Mynors called it Christmas Island and the name stuck. Nobody set foot on the island for another several decades. A permanent population didn’t arrive until the 1880’s. Now Christmas Island belongs to Australia as a territory with around two thousand residents.

I’d always been fascinated by its incredible red crab migration. The wet season begins near the end of October. Then tens of millions of crabs leave their burrows in the forest and make their way to the shoreline to spawn in alignment with the cycles of the moon. Afterwards they return to the forest and life goes on. These waves of roving crabs cover every patch of available earth as they approach their destination. Officials literally shut down roads during peak periods to prevent tragedy to the local crab population. It’s supposed to be an amazing spectacle and a big tourism draw. I’d love to see it in person someday.

Christmas Common, Oxfordshire

Red Kite over Watlington
Red Kite over Watlington. Photo by Raj on Flickr (cc)

Nobody really knew how Christmas Common (map) near Watlington, England got its name. Theories pointed to "a 1643 Christmas Day truce between combatants in the English Civil War, local holly tree coppices, or the Christmas family, which had local connections." People seemed to be guessing.

Christmas Common sat within the Chiltern Hills, a picturesque chalk escarpment designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty by Natural England. This entire area recently experienced the successful reintroduction of Red Kites, a bird of prey, in the 1990’s.

Red kites were driven to extinction in England by human persecution by the end of the nineteenth century. A small population survived in Wales, but there was little chance of these birds repopulating their original areas. Between 1989 and 1994, kites from Spain were imported and released into the Chilterns by the RSPB and English Nature (now Natural England). Red kites started breeding in the Chilterns in 1992 and now there could be over 1,000 breeding pairs in the area.

A local entrepreneur also capitalized on Christmas Common by opening a Christmas tree farm, the Tree Barn. The farm included about a hundred acres of Nordmann Fir, Norway Spruce and other varieties. It claimed to provide the Christmas tree for 10 Downing Street for several years. I corroborated that with a quick search of the Intertubes. The Tree Barn supplied a Rocky Mountain fir native to Arizona for 2015. Unfortunately it did not win the contest in 2016.

Fort Christmas, Florida

Fort Christmas
Fort Christmas. Photo by boxer_bob on Flickr (cc)

The United States featured several Christmas towns. I selected one in Florida. Each year a steady stream of people travel to this little hamlet to get their Christmas cards stamped at the local post office. It added a little touch of merriment, I supposed.

The Christmas name traced back to events long before the town existed. The United States staged a series of military actions against the native Seminoles, driving them farther south by force and by treaty. The Seminole chieftain Osceola resisted these incursions, sparking what would become the Second Seminole War. In response, the U.S. Army constructed a series of forts within the disputed area to protect its settlers. One of these rose in eastern Orange County in 1837, a simple log stockade designed as a supply depot. Construction began on Christmas day and it became Fort Christmas as a result (map). The Army abandoned it a few months later when the Seminoles left the area.

The town took its name from the remote outpost that once stood there.

Christmas Valley, Oregon

Christmas Valley Sand Dunes
Christmas Valley Sand Dunes. Photo by Bureau of Land Management on Flickr (cc)

Lake County, Oregon included a community called Christmas Valley, situated in a valley of the same name near Christmas Lake (map). They all got their names from the same source, a local pioneer named Peter Christman.

So it would seem that Peter’s Creek and nearby Christman Lake were named after Major Peter Christman. Sometime between 1873 and 1877 people started calling Christman lake "Christmas." It is yet to be discovered exactly how the "s" came to replace the "n", but maps bearing the name "Christmas Lake" would go into the hands of every homesteader that would come to the valley.

The Christmas Valley community developed after the Second World War. It repeated the earlier mangling of the surname.

Venice of Whatever

I kept running into places that compared themselves to Venice as I uncovered canal superlatives. Literally dozens of places described themselves that way. It made things easy for Twelve Mile Circle too. I could select whatever examples I wanted today because I couldn’t possibly cover them all. That seemed like an excellent opportunity to create some push-pins in lower density areas of the 12MC Complete Index Map. Right, India?

Gondolas, Venice
Gondolas, Venice. Photo by Kevin Gibbons on Flickr (cc)

Realizing all these claimants existed, of course only one true Venice prevailed amongst the poseurs, the deservedly famous one in Italy (map). It seemed like an odd location for a city, scattered along a string of islands in a marshy lagoon at the mouth of a couple of rivers. The founders selected this unlikely site intentionally. The marsh offered refuge to Christians fleeing southward away from Germanic tribes as the Roman Empire crumbled. Their city grew over the centuries. Eventually it became an important economic hub and a naval power. Venice only had so much land however, and an overabundance of water, leading to the beautiful canals that visitors treasure today.

Kashmiri Venice

India - Dal lake, Srinagar, Kashmir
India – Dal lake, Srinagar, Kashmir. Photo by sandeepachetan.com travel photography on Flickr (cc)

I decided to completely side-step the ongoing geopolitical situation of the Kashmir conflict. The focus remained on a city with an alleged resemblance to Venice contained within its larger borders. Srinagar (map) came under Indian control and that seemed alright for my purposes. The city claimed to be a "Kashmiri Venice" or even more boldly the "Venice of the East." At least a dozen other places also proclaimed themselves to be the true Venice of the East. I didn’t know how to rank them although I felt secure that Srinagar should be considered at least the Kashmiri Venice. That felt safe.

Srinagar fell within the Jammu and Kashmir state at the very northern tip of India. Jammu and Kashmir itself included an interesting geo-oddity. It had both a summer and a winter capital. Srinagar served as the capital during the warmer months and then it jumped to Jammu for the winter. I couldn’t figure why or how that worked. It seemed strange to move the capital nearly 300 kilometres (180 miles) twice a year. And I’ve complained about moving the hands of a clock twice a year. That little tangent had nothing to do with canals in Srinagar so I supposed I need to get back on track.

The Jhelum River ran through Srinagar on its way to the Indus River. A series of canals, both current and historical, prevented flooding and regulated water levels. They also connected two large bodies of water, Dal Lake and Anchar Lake, as well as several smaller ones. The city became known for its majestic waterside Mughal architecture, its wonderful parks and its iconic houseboats. All of those conditions underlied its claim.

Venice of the Netherlands

Giethoorn in the Overijssel province of the Netherlands also featured a network of interlaced canals and an abundance of water.

It is so peaceful, so different and has such simple beauty that it hardly seems real – gently gliding along small canals past old but pretty thatched-roof farmhouses… Giethoorn is at the centre of Overijssel’s canal system. Indeed, the little village is so dependent on its waterways, many of the houses cannot be reached by road. When the postman delivers the mail he travels by punt.

Giethoorn made some pretty bold claims too. Some called Giethoorn (map) the "Venice of the Netherlands" and others extended it even farther to "Venice of the North." I think the fine folks in Amsterdam might question either claim although that hardly seemed to stop little Giethoorn from drawing its line in the sand.

It looked like something out of a fairy tale. Were there any trolls under those bridges?

Venice of America

Venice? In America?
Venice? In America?. Photo by Landon on Flickr (cc)

Florida featured an entire city of Venice although nobody called it the "Venice of America," or even the "Venice of Florida." It got its name in the 1880’s and even the city itself admitted that a couple of early settlers simply picked the name. Venice didn’t have any more or any fewer canals than other coastal cities in Florida. A completely different Florida location claimed to be the Venice of America; Fort Lauderdale (map). The city featured "65 miles of interconnected canals" spanned by 52 separate bridges. Cruises and water taxis delighted many tourists who flocked there.

A Special Note

The nation of Venezuela might be the most significant Venetian namesake. Most sources agreed that Amerigo Vespucci, navigator for the Alonso de Ojeda expedition of 1499 bestowed the name. Supposedly he noticed stilt houses built upon Lake Maracaibo that reminded him of the Italian City so he named it Veneziola ("Little Venice"). This became Venezuela when filtered through Spanish. Amerigo fared even better however, with a little corner of the world known as America named in his honor.