Saturday, January 16, 2021

As the World Turns: What is a New Year Anyway?



As The World Turns.

    This week will mark the end of 2020 and the birth of new year. This will be a turning of the calendar page that most of us will be applauding. This has been a year of unprecedented challenge and change for the United States, most notably from the COVID pandemic and from all of the subterranean problems in our culture the pandemic laid bare. From the storms and wildfires in throughout the year, to the actions against racial and social injustices that have been a part of this country since before it was a country; to the problems of the US health care system, to weaknesses in our food supply system and more, the pandemic revealed more about our culture than many of us realized or were willing to see. It has been a hard year of revelations, adjustments, and change that we are still struggling to learn how to face. And we are not alone. This is a global phenomenon, and the whole world has been reminded that we are truly interconnected, as much as we might like to pretend we aren’t.

  As a result of COVID, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day worldwide will look very different this year. In most years the whole world would now be gearing up for huge celebrations, ceremonies, religious observances, huge parades and parties and sporting events to take note of moving from one year into the next.  In fact, New Year's Eve and New Year's Day are the most widely celebrated public holidays in the world. We do not know exactly the ways different countries and cultures will observe this passage of time this year, as the pandemic has thrown everything up in the air. But we do know that for most of the world, it will still mean the dates of December 31st and January 1st.  That is the “New Year.” But if we look at most of human history, a “new year’ did not mean those dates at all. The idea of a new year starting in the midst of winter is really a relatively new idea across most of the globe.

    New years have been celebrated for thousands of years. The first recorded celebrations come from some 4000 years ago in Mesopotamia-Iraq; the place most historians agree civilization started. Around spring and fall equinoxes,     when days and  nights were of equal length, they celebrated both the work of planting and of harvesting as grand days of renewal for the cities and their surrounding areas.  There were festivals that involved the gods-both as prayers hoping for a good year of planting and growth, and as a, “Thank you” for a good harvest. “Akitu” was the name for the spring festival, and historians look to those celebrations as the first recorded instances of what we would call a “new year.”  Of course, such celebrations are really much older-things were happening long before humans invented writing and keeping records. 

As farming and agriculture gradually became mainstays of human activity people came to know when the ideal times were to plant and to harvest, and they invoked the powers of the gods in that quest. Knowing the cycle of the seasons was essential to the survival of the culture. So that meant that for thousands of years spring was the beginning of a new year.  It is easy to see why. The earth was being 'born again” in very real and obvious ways. Flowers and plants were re-appearing. Animals were  emerging from hibernation and/or returning to feeding grounds and mating. The wild grasses were back. There was obviously more light as the days were getting longer. It seemed as if the world was truly reborn. This cycle of the seasons was noted and revered. It was at the heart of most cultures, and the start of came to mean “new year.” This can still be seen in many religious practices today. Many religions have some of their most significant holidays-holy days-in the spring and fall.  Easter and Passover, for example are literally all about renewal and rebirth. And there are dozen of other cultural and religious observances that take place in the spring around the world. Clearly, the coming of spring signified important things to most peoples. So what happened? How did we get from the cycle of the seasons determining the new year to an almost universal acceptance of January 1 as the “new year”?                                                   

   In 46 B.C.E. Roman Emperor Julius Caesar faced a challenge. Empires control many peoples and many cultures, and they need an empire-wide sense of time for efficiency in trade, law, cultural unity, and more. Empires depend on order and regularity, so Julius invited a noted astronomer from Egypt to come to Rome and create a solar calendar. The ideas was to move the Roman Empire's sense of time from the movable dates of a lunar (moon) based calendar to a regularly dated solar (sun) based one. This moved the new year's from March (spring) back to January. In 42 B.C.E. The Roman Senate decided to honor the by then assassinated leader by making January 1st his day, both as a tribute to him and to honor his readjustment of the calendar. This meshed very nicely with Roman religion-they already had a god of gates and beginnings named Janus, for whom the month of January is named. Janus was two headed with one head looking backward and one looking forward. This was a perfect metaphor for a new year-look back at what happened and look forward to what is to come. So January became the start of a new year. This lasted throughout the Empire, but as the Roman Empire broke up, the new year again became a melange of dates. The Catholic Church, in its attempt to unify Europe, then drew up a new calendar in 1582 under the leadership of Pope Gregory the 13th. This calendar, the Gregorian, is the one in use in most of the world today, and it made the new year's date January 1 throughout Europe. Of course there were still cultures and calendars which celebrated the new year at different times, but the colonization and empire building of Europe eventually spread their calendar around the world. The business and political world in every country now operate on the Georgian calendar and recognize the New Year as January 1st.                                    

   The dates of the new year changed, but the traditions associated with it still reflect much of the original ideas of what a new year is. Originally new year’s celebrations were about hope and pledges of commitment-if we pray and try to live in a way that honors the gods, then we can have a good planting and hunting season, a good growing season and a good harvest. How we live-what we did and do- will influence what will happen. That fits with the Roman idea of January. Janus looks in two directions- backward and forward. That is a good metaphor for this occasion. We look back at what we did in the previous year, evaluate it, and resolve-make resolutions- to do better in the coming year, hoping for a better outcome. And being human, we do this with rituals that symbolize and give substance to those aspirations and beliefs. We eat foods that represent hopes for long lives, prosperity, good fortune, good health and more. Circle cakes, noodles, special dumplings, rice and black-eyed peas, certain fruits and more have all been part of traditional New Years' feasts from various cultures symbolizing hopes for a better next year. And being human, this cannot be a solo enterprise. New beginnings call for humans to be reverent and reflective and to look at our lives against a larger backdrop; family and community matter. Ritual brings us together, allowing us to see and celebrate our joint humanity and commitment to and need of each other.  

    For most of our rituals humans need to be together in some form that recognizes that we often meet the world best when we are with others and working together. The events of this year clearly challenge that. Heading into 2021 will be very different, The actual “groupness”of so much human ritual is not happening this year, and we shall have to accept, adjust and adapt to that, just as have had to do for most of this year. I hope each of you can find some way of observing this time than can honor the meaning of this time. Even though it will be very different. I hope you are all able to do that. And I wish each of you a time of thoughtfulness, gratitude, good company in some safe form, and good food to help you connect with the original idea of this observance.

Thursday, December 17, 2020

Let It Snow Let It Snow



It snowed in Philadelphia last night, and for many people that was the one thing that has been normal so far these last few months. It had been a few years since the area had a snowstorm of any substantial amount, and this felt a bit like old home week. 5-10 inches of snow throughout the region is normal for us, and it felt good to see something normal occur. Of course, this is 2020, so even this bit of “normal” came with its own set of extenuating circumstances. How do you do a “snow day’ in schools when school buildings are already closed? And if you have personal time benefits at work, is this a day when you can use them, especially if you have been working from home? Nothing, it seems, is straight forward anymore.

 I used to love snow days as a kid. Waking up to the news that “All Phila public and parochial schools are closed” was wonderful. It meant I could stay home, sleep a little later, and go play out in the white stuff.  As I got older I had to shovel, of course, but that did not take the whole day. I had plenty of time to engage in trying to build snowmen, having snowball fights, and going sledding on our Flexible Flyer sleds. I don’t remember being much good at building snowmen, but I always tried. Occasionally a snowball would turn out to be ‘an iceball, and I did get hurt. But it was still fun.

Often Mom would make homemade soup on snow days, and coming into the house, cold and shivering, and being greeted by the aroma and feel of fresh soup was always special to me. I still make soups and stews in fall and winter to this day just to relive that sensory experience. Soup is still a comfort food for me, and smelling it cooking in the house always feels like a mom’s hug.

As I became a teacher, snow days became mixed bags. I had to be an adult and look at things with an eye toward bigger, more important problems. I did not always like that. There were days where I had a trip or test scheduled, and re-arranging those could be difficult in any school’s schedule. There were also the days in which a test was scheduled, a snow day possibility would be announced a couple of days earlier, the day would come but the snow day was canceled. As a teacher you knew the students hadn’t studied as well                                                                                                                                                    on such days. I never kept a formal count, but I know absences were always higher on such days.

I know I didn’t realize it when I was a kid, but teachers wanted snow days too!  There were some freezing winter days when I, as a tired and overworked teacher, simply wanted a day to pull up the covers, sleep in, and not have to go out in the cold to face a bunch of middle school kids.  These were the snow days that I really loved, although I did not let my students know that. They were special days, indeed.

Philadelphia schools had a snow day yesterday, and I know a lot of teachers and students alike were very glad for that. Remote teaching and learning is difficult, and we have been doing it non-stop for months. We really needed a break. New York City did not have a snow day yesterday, and I saw interviews with a number of NYC teachers who were quite upset and angry. They really wanted that day. If another big snow comes, I hope they can get it. Sometimes we just need a break-a change in routine. Every now and then folks just need to break the pattern for a while. Snow days can give us that, and we don’t even have to plan them or make them happen. Nature takes care of that for us, and that can be looked at as an unmerited gift. And we can embrace it. Happy shoveling.


Harmonica player John Colgan-Davis will be doing a live streaming concert with acoustic blues guitarist-singer Johnny Never this Friday, 5:00 PM until 6:00 PM from Rising Sun Studios in MD. It will be an hour of traditional and original songs in Delta, Piedmont, and swing styles. Join from the comfort of your home for a great hour of music. The link for the concert is:


Hope you can make it!


  The recent upticks in local COVID infections means that the Dukes are going to lay low until next spring at the earliest. By that time vaccines should have been distributed widely enough that clubs and festivals can get back in action. We want to thank all of our fans and friends for hanging in there and for responding to these newsletters and sending e-mails. We so miss playing for you!. We are looking forward to the time when we can safely do it live again. Until then Happy Holidays. Please stay safe, be careful and be well.

Missing Dukes Sounds?

Dukes Live Dukes of Destiny - Chain of Fool's

Dukes CD's: Thinking of holiday gifts. You can get our third CD, “3”, and our most recent CD, "Higher," or a download card of “Higher.”. You can order them via the Dukes website or directly from me. You can also pick up CD's at these select outlets:

CD Baby online dukesofdestiny2

Hideaway Music 8232 Germantown Ave, Philadelphia, PA  215-248-4434

Monday, November 30, 2020

Thanksgiving, Christmas and Commerce



(I originally wrote the bulk of this newsletter back in November of 2017. In the three years since I became aware that I had included incorrect information about the origin of the term, “Black Friday.” I apologize for that; the other info here is correct, but it was important to correct the misinformation. Today, especially when so much about history is being re-thought and re-examined, it is important to get things as accurate as possible. So with that in mind, here is a slightly revised version of my November 2017 piece.)

 Last week was Thanksgiving a day, in theory, of family coming together, home prepared food, and expressions of gratitude. While family and together time can be rough for some folks, traditionally it was a good time for family and friends. People saw folks they had not seen for a while, a few welcomed children and new in-laws into the extended family, and others simply enjoyed being together and expressing feelings of warmth and gratitude.  That is the way that holiday was intended to be observed, but things in our culture have changed mightily this year. We had to find new ways of being in touch with each other this Thanksgiving and we had to consider the possibility of setting up of new traditions. For some of us this worked out fine, with SKYPE f ZOOM gatherings, video messaging, etc. For others it was hard as they missed the old ways and were not able or ready to embrace a new way. One important thing remained the same, though. Whatever warm, fuzzy Thanksgiving feelings we had last Thursday were quickly overrun by the rush of commerce and constant appeals to buy, spend and consume. “Black Friday” was different this year, but it still happened. The winter shopping season has begun.

There have always been links between seasonal changes and commerce. Early human groups traveled across different places at different times in the year and found different things available for both consuming and trading. In the ancient world, spring meant hunting and trading for more plants and seeds, going to where the herds of animals and schools of fish were in order to get more. Autumn meant increased hunting, trading, gathering and traveling to get ready for winter. Most hunting-gathering people already saw religious and mythological links between changes in seasons and their lives, so the special importance of different products at different times became natural. The original autumnal “thanksgivings” were literally the “giving of “Thanks” to the gods for a good harvest or hunt, and hope for surviving the winter.  As cities and the lifestyle known as civilization developed, more extensive trading happened, and many more things became available. New products came from different parts of the world, and having of lots of products became associated with everything from class levels to social wealth to religious worth to personal worth, to political power and more. And when civilizations developed into empires, the importance of having, trading, giving, and owning products exploded exponentially. Civilizations kept producing and developing more products at an ever increasing rate.

Commerce is at the heart of civilization,, and we are no longer shy about that. We have developed systems for coming up with new products: Research and Development, planned obsolescence, and upgrades. We have come up with more ways of putting products in front of people-signs, advertising campaigns, product placement, pop-up ads embedded in web articles, celebrity endorsements, and more The bazaars and marketplaces of the old days have become shopping malls, warehouse outlets and online commercial hubs such as Amazon and E-Bay. After the 1924 debut of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade, this post-Thanksgiving weekend quickly became the start of our “winter shopping season.” The gift giving associated with the Christmas story became more and more the focus of Christmas, and the Friday after Thanksgiving was the time to get it started. This became the time when stores and shops ran special sales and campaigns to get people into the stores. And opening up the wallets and pocketbooks.

The term for that time is now “Black Friday”, and the origin of that term has a dark side to it. In the 1950s, police in Philadelphia used the term to describe the chaos that ensued on the day after Thanksgiving. hordes of suburban shoppers and tourists flooded into the city to take advantage of the sales and in advance of the big Army-Navy football game that used to be held here every year on the Saturday following Thanksgiving. Suburbs were relatively new and expanding, and the new highways and freeways made it easier to get into the city to shop as well as go to sporting events. So suburbanites added to the mess. Philly cops had to work extra-long shifts dealing with the regularly increasing mess of huge crowds and miles of traffic problems. Shoplifters also took advantage of the bedlam in stores to make off with merchandise, and pickpockets endlessly worked the crowds. To police, then, the Friday after Thanksgiving was not joyous at all. Instead it was “black.”

By 1961, “Black Friday” had become the local term for that day in Philadelphia. Retailers tried unsuccessfully to change it to “Big Friday” in order to remove the negative connotations of the term, but that term didn’t take off. “Black Friday” was what it was called, and Black Friday it remained. So retailers did the next best thing. They changed the meaning and explanation for the term. They turned it into a story about businesses on that day suddenly making a profit-going into the black. This new story of what Black Friday meant caught on, and the term’s true origin was forgotten.  Not only did the phrase catch on across the  nation, but what was originally a one-day event slowly morphed into a four-day event that spawned other “retail holidays” such as Small Business Saturday and Cyber Monday. COVID made changes in those days this year, as most sales moved online. Nonetheless, there were many brick and mortar stores open last weekend.

Cyber Monday” came into being in 2005 as an idea to encourage people to shop online and build online business. It has been very successful, taking in some 9.4 billion dollars last year. With the amount of online shopping increasing this due to COVID, it is estimated the weekend will bring in some 12-13 billion dollars. Clearly this seasonal urge to spend is quite powerful in our culture. It even applies to charities and non-profits.

     A 2012 survey found the some 50% of charities and non-profits reported that most of their individual contributions came in between October and December. The ideas of holiday gifting, seasonal calls for thinking of others, and tax deductions has combined to drive more charitable fundraising these last two months of the year and has resulted in “Giving Tuesday.”. Giving Tuesday is a day for making donations to fund good causes following Black Friday and Cyber Monday. The founders wanted people to focus on giving after their weekend shopping spree, and to see a seamless link between spending for family and self and giving to help others. The idea quickly took off, and it is now an international movement.  It even has its own website- which serves as a conduit connecting groups, causes, organizations and individuals. The website has history, tools to get organized, and connections to local movements from around the world. Given the widespread challenges presented by the COVID pandemic, support for charitable institutions is critical. Giving Tuesday is one way of making that possible.

So the “Black Friday” phenomenon can, and in many ways, has definitely overwhelmed the intended sense of the original autumnal thanksgivings. It can be about things and about consumption above all else. But it can also lead to a “Giving Tuesday” if we allow ourselves to get beyond the products and onto to something more meaningful. We can find another way to extend the notion of gratitude by giving back and giving to. I hope more of us can move to that this year. If you are so moved, please go to