Sunday, December 4, 2022

The Power of December Light



“There's something magical about December”   

                                                    Charmaine J Forde   

“December is a bewitching month.  

The grey of cold teases  

to explode into something worthwhile,  

into a dream of cold,   

a starlight shower you can taste,  

a cold that does not chill...    

                                      Joseph Coelho, A Year of Nature Poems  

“How did it get so late so soon?”   

                                  Dr. Seuss  

(We have had a lot of rainy, windy, cold and grey days this last week, and frankly, they have had me somewhat depressed. I am an early morning person, and most times waking up to misty fog and the sound of rain is pleasant to me; it almost feels like a movie set or a set piece in a piece of dramatic fiction. But of late, I have just been tired of it. While I am fortunately not afflicted with it, I can understand why SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) is a real thing. Humans need light, and lately I am missing it.  

To that end, I remembered a newsletter I sent out way back in 2014 about December, celebrations, and light. Reading it helped lift my mood, so I thought I would send it out again, lightly edited, in the first week of December and in the midst of continual dark days. Consider it an ode to the beauty and power of light.)  

Let There Be Lights:  

December is the time of many celebrations. There is, of course, Christmas and the minor celebrations leading up to it, including Advent, the 12 Days of Christmas, Yule, and others depending on your culture, ethnicity and religious tradition. There is also Hanukkah with its 8 days of oil-based food and dreidel playing, and Kwanzaa with its celebration of Pan-African culture and values. And if you are Buddhist, Hopi, Hindu, traditional Persian, Wiccan, or West African Dogon, there are also celebrations for you as well during this month. There are many other celebrations from many other different religious and ethnic traditions from around the world taking place during this time and there always have been. In fact, what many of us think of as elements of traditional Christmas celebrations actually have their roots in earlier Wiccan and Persian traditions. December, then, is a month that has always been rich with observances, rituals and celebrations. And what so many of these celebrations and observances have in common is the prominence of light in the ceremonies. Candles, bonfires, logs, electric lights, tree lights, flashing lights-light is a common element, metaphor and symbol worldwide at this time of the year. Humans need and must celebrate light.  

It makes perfect sense that humans are so light conscious in December. Humans look to nature to try to figure out what is coming and what God or the gods have in store for us. For most of our history that has meant looking to the sky-to the sun, the moon and the stars. Humans have known for centuries that the length of the days was changing at this time of the year and that what we call the winter solstice was coming. This became a time of deep spiritual meaning for early humans, and it was marked in many different ways depending upon geography and culture. As the length of the days shortened and then magically, slowly increased, it was as if the earth was being reborn and we were living through and witnessing that process. We had to acknowledge it and honor it, else it may not happen again. So symbolically, many cultures created rituals that recognized it as a time of rebirth. Many of the stories, myths and traditions from different times and places began to associate this time with miraculous births, enlightenment, miracles, and/or new beginnings. The Druid bonfires and the Germanic and Norse Yule logs, for example, were symbolic and metaphoric symbols of cleansing, sacrifice, and the simultaneous death and rebirth of the earth-from the shortest day of the year to gradually more and more hours of sunlight. To the ancient Persians this was the time of the Yalda festival, and Mithras, the symbol of truth, strength, goodness and light, was born to a virgin mother at this time of the year. His birth was celebrated with flame and holy fire. Sol Invictus, the Roman sun god, was also celebrated at this time. We humans even long ago seemed to know that we had to meet the darkness with light.  

New beginnings are important in most religious traditions, and light is a strong metaphor for that. Our language shows that it still is. We speak of “seeing the light, or “coming into the light.” There is the “inner light and we “let our light shine.”  Transformation and rebirth are readily spoken of and alluded to in so many of the rituals and ceremonies in our religions, especially at this time of the year. Hanukkah is about rebirth and new beginnings as it celebrates the re-dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem from its desecration when Antiochus made it into a Greek temple. The candles symbolize, in part, the rebirth of the religion. The candles in Kwanzaa symbolize the reawakened connection and awareness of African values and connections for people of African descent. To Buddhists, Bodhi Day in December celebrates the Buddha becoming a Buddha-an “enlightened” one who suddenly could see beyond illusion. To Christians, the Star of Bethlehem symbolically led to a new beginning for humans, as it led the Wise Men to the birthplace of Jesus. In all these traditions, light was symbolically leading us forward.  

And light is as powerful today to us humans as it was when we first figured out the solstice and what it could mean. Tradition has it that Martin Luther saw stars one night as he was composing a sermon and tried to capture their beauty by adding lighted candles to the Christmas tree inside his house. Whether that is true or not, by the time the Germanic tradition of the Christmas tree reached the US the idea of lights were a fixture.  And now there are lighted houses, malls, streets, yards, shops and more. We are awash in lights; there are even whole streets and neighborhoods that collaborate to plan what their light scheme is going to be each holiday season. And many families now have a tradition of driving to visit different neighborhoods just to see the light displays.  

So our ancient connection to the rhythms and structures of the natural world are in some ways still with us, even if we do not recognize them as such. As up to date and modern as we are in this digital age, we are still human, and that means we are still connected to our ancestors and their beliefs in some important and primal ways. As we celebrate our various rituals, traditions and personal rituals this season, I hope you can spend some time outside looking up and taking time to marvel at what is going on up there. The sun, the moon, the constellations: it is quite miraculous, and it still influences so much of what we do down here.  Enjoy the magic of light.        

Wednesday, November 23, 2022

Giving Thanks



Be thankful for what you have; you’ll end up having more. If you concentrate on what you don’t have, you will never, ever have enough”- Anonymous  

“Some people grumble that roses have thorns; I am grateful that thorns have roses. Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr  

“As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words but to live by them.”– John F. Kennedy  

  Those of you who have read this newsletter for several years know that I love Thanksgiving. I have said over the years that Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, and I truly mean it. I love that the holiday is one that stresses getting together with friends and family, not having to give gifts, sharing good food, and especially encouraging the joint giving of thanks. Gratitude is a stance that has become an important part of my life, and I am glad that we have a day where, in theory at least, we can focus on that.  

As with all the rituals and observances of any civilization, this idea of Thanksgiving has ancient roots. It is part of what it means to be human. The “new year” in most cultures before the Roman Empire meant “Springtime.” In hunting-gathering societies, spring meant going to where herds of animals and schools of fish were gathered and mating so we could get more of them for the upcoming year. It also meant gathering the seeds, plants, and flowers that would be food for eating and trading. In farming communities spring also meant planting seeds in the hopes that they would grow and produce crops for the upcoming year. That is why so many of our holidays of rebirth and renewal are spring holidays-Easter and Passover, for example. Rebirth is important and necessary, and we need spiritual help to make it happen.  

To early humans, autumn meant increased hunting, trading, gathering and traveling to get ready for winter. In farming communities, it meant the time to harvest, collect, and store crops in preparation for winter. Most people already saw religious and mythological links between changes in the seasons and their lives, so the special importance of having different products at different times became “natural” and part of the “divine order.” We needed rituals to recognize this. The original autumnal “thanksgivings” were literally the “giving of Thanks” to the gods for a good harvest or hunt, and hope that the society could survive the winter. We would give thanks that we had made it.  

That was the meaning of many of the original days of Thanksgiving: families and communities gathered together to give thanks to the gods, share the bounty, and re-unite with each other for the next year. The core of that is still within our tradition, and that is one of the things that moves me about this holiday. But each year it can seem as if those things are being overrun by the rush of heavy commerce and constant appeals to buy, spend, and consume. This year some “Black Friday” sales ads started running even before Halloween had happened! I found that shocking. The winter shopping season had begun while the witches, goblins, scary movies, and monsters of Halloween were still being celebrated. Ugh  

  That is not totally surprising, though. 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 the having of lots of products became associated with everything from class level to social worth, 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. That is where we are. Civilizations keep producing and developing more products at an ever-increasing rate. And if products are being made, someone has to buy them.   

Commerce is at the heart of civilization, and we are no longer shy about that.  After the 1920’s debuts of the Gimbels Macy’s Thanksgiving Parades, the 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. Stores and shops ran special sales and ad campaigns to get people into the stores and opening up their wallets and pocketbooks.  

   The term for that time now is “Black Friday,” and we embrace it as a positive. But the origin of that term has a dark side to it. In the 1950s, police in Philadelphia used that term to describe the chaos that ensued on the day after Thanksgiving. Hordes of shoppers and tourists flooded into the city to take advantage of the department store sales, to attend the Gimbels Thanksgiving Day parade, and to party in advance of the Army-Navy football game that used to be held every year on the Saturday following Thanksgiving. Suburbs were relatively new and expanding then, and new highways and freeways made it easier to get into the city to shop and go to sporting events. So suburbanites were added to the crowd, and Philly cops had to work extra-long shifts dealing with the regularly increasing mass of huge crowds, miles of traffic problems, muggers and shoplifters taking advantage of the bedlam in stores to make off with merchandise, and pickpockets endlessly working the crowds. To the police, 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 to change it to “Big Friday” in order to remove the negative connotations, but that term didn’t take off.  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 being able to make a profit-suddenly 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 these last two years as many sales moved online. Nonetheless, there will be many malls and brick and mortar stores open extra early this weekend and staying open extra-late right on through Christmas.  

  Cyber Monday” came into being in 2005 and has been very successful, taking in some 10 billion dollars last year and out-performing Black Friday. Clearly this seasonal urge to spend is quite powerful in our culture, and it now applies to charities and non-profits as well. Over 50% of charities and non-profits report that most of their individual contributions were received during the months of October, November, and December. The ideas of holiday gifting, seasonal calls for thinking of others, and charitable tax deductions has combined to drive more charitable fundraising these last three months of the year and has resulted in “Giving Tuesday.”. Giving Tuesday is a day for making donations to fund good causes following the excesses of Black Friday and Cyber Monday. The founders wanted people to focus on giving after their weekend shopping sprees, 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 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, climate-driven catastrophes, worldwide hunger and more, support for charitable institutions is critical. Giving Tuesday is one way of making that possible.  

   So if the “Black Friday” and Cyber Monday phenomena can overwhelm the intended sense of the original autumnal thanksgivings, they can also lead to “Giving Tuesday” if we allow ourselves to get beyond the frenzy of the ads and the products and onto to something more meaningful. We can find another way to extend the notion of gratitude not only by saying, “Thanks” but by giving back and by giving to. I hope more of us can move to that this year. If you are so moved, please go to And thanks to each of you. I am so grateful to have all of you in my life and

The Moon


The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees.     
The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas.     
The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,     
And the highwayman came riding—  
The highwayman came riding, up to the old inn-door  

The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes  

I first read The Highwayman when I was about 9 years old. My mother had sold enough World Book Encyclopedias to earn her family a free set of Childcraft, a sort of a children's encyclopedia with separate books on science, history, and literature. I read Childcraft regularly, particularly the history and literature books. And I loved the poem when I came across it. I was and still am a sucker for metaphoric description and dramatic phrasing. I quickly memorized it and would give dramatic recitations of it to whomever would listen. And the first two lines of that poem have stayed with me ever since.  

I am thinking about this because the first two nights of this week featured a “torrent of darkness” and especially the “ghostly galleon” of the moon “tossed upon cloudy seas.” This week has featured both a lead up to a full moon, a lunar eclipse and a full moon itself. I have been reveling in all of that. The lunar eclipse was yesterday, visible starting at 3:16 AM on the East Coast. In all honesty, I did not get up in time to catch the whole thing, but I was up it as it ended at about 6:15. There was also a full moon that night, and the moon for several days leading up to the eclipse was just gorgeous, bright and magnetic as it was “tossed upon the cloudy seas.” I love night skies, particularly in the autumn and winter. They seem so real and “there” at those times of the year. And they bring me quiet joy and a sense of peace. 

I have been conscious of the moon since reading The Highwayman so many years ago, and I have always noticed crescent, half, quarter and especially full moons. Noticing these things brings me a type of joy, quiet amazement, and comfort. These things happen regularly, are visible to us, so it seems to suggest to me that all if right with the world.  All human cultures have done these things, of course, and all human cultures have explanations, usually spiritual and/or religious, for the phases of the moon, its location as it appears to us on Earth, its effects on the Earth, and more. Most cultures have usually viewed the moon as female, as it seems tied to the menstrual cycle in women. That coincidence was noted a long time ago. The word, “lunar” is, in fact, derived from Luna, the Greek and Roman goddesses of the moon. It is her domain. Luna is also the root of the word, “lunatic.” It was believed that the moon could affect human behavior, especially that of women. These ancient cultures knew that the moon affected the tides on Earth, and they knew about water in the body, particularly in the brain. And they made connections.  Aristotle thought that the brain, as the moistest part of body, was affected by the moon as were the tides on Earth-it seemed logical. Pliny, the Roman soldier, naturalist, and philosopher, also taught that theory. So the moon was seen, therefore, as responsible for strange human behavior, or “lunacy." The Greeks had passed this on to the Romans, and it eventually came down to us.  

When I was a kid, we believed that the full moon was an especially ripe time for strange, eerie, and weird things. It was dangerous; there would be people flipping out and “losing their minds,” crime outbreaks, the dead rising, werewolves, and more. We used to dare each other to go the church graveyard about a mile away on a full moon night to prove how tough we were. If we were able to do that and come back, then we had proven our manliness. Of course, years of scientific research has shown that there is absolutely no link between the moon and “lunacy” in people. But many people still earnestly believe that the full moon does affect people’s emotions, moods, and sanity. And that it portends strange things. We have anecdotes that we tell that demonstrate this. We even have an entire literature and movie industry that has played up this belief to good fortune. One of the things this proves is that good “myths’ do not die easily.  

For me, I just enjoy the immense comfort I get from noticing the moon out there and seeing it doing its thing. It is always there, there going through its phases regularly, quietly, and majestically. I sometimes think of the moon as watching over us in a way that seems gentler and more friendly than the sun. It is not hot and harsh, and it does not seem to be “beating down” on us. It is out there hovering over us and providing a certain assuredness that all is right with the world. And yes, that is my “myth”... my belief (smile.) And that allows me to just look up at it in wonder. and to feel gratitude that it is still there. How pleasing.  

(Link to The Highwayman )  

(To those of you who are new to the mailing list and curious about previous newsletters, go to our website and click on “John’s Blog”          

Thursday, October 20, 2022

Muzak-The American Work Song




“I worry that the person who thought up Muzak may be thinking up something else to invent.”  

Lily Tomlin  

A few days ago I was in SEPTA’S Jefferson Station, and I was in a bad mood. I was in the middle of doing a bunch of errands that I did not want to do, I had gotten some bad news about a friend’s health, and I was upset, tired, worried and concerned. I was talking to a friend on my cell, and suddenly a Muzak version of the song, Stand By Me came over the station’s PA. I lost it. I love that song-the sense of devotion and pleading and passion that the original version of that song conveys still moves me to this day. And it was totally lost in this silky- smooth, instrumental, even-tempoed,  syrupy, violin-heavy Muzak version, and I was outraged.   

After I talked to my friend and calmed down I laughed and reflected on my outrage. It was clear that it was the culmination of a rough day, and I took it out on the Muzak. I laughed at myself, and then I started reflecting on what Muzak is and has been, and how it came to be. The history teacher in me took off, and I did some research about this seemingly strange and ubiquitous background to so much of American life. Because for decades, Muzak has been a soundtrack for all of us. It has been there for so long and in so many ways that we scarcely notice it anymore.  

When we hear the word “muzak” the first thought that often comes to mind is, “elevator music.” Muzak had it origins in the 1930’s and was invented as a way to send music through wires to people in their homes. Major George Squiers had perfected how to send recorded music over wires and wanted it to go to customers in their homes. However, radio had become very popular, and radio soon cornered most of that market. In the meantime, cities, and especially urban downtowns, were starting to boom across the nation. This meant huge office towers and this strange new invention called, “the elevator.” Initially Americans were very nervous about elevators; the idea of going way up in a tall building, stuffed into a narrow tight compartment carried only by a string, and in close contact with strangers, was not so appealing to many folks. To make this easier for people to deal with, office towers started piping in soothing, non-threatening music to calm people’s nerves during their elevator rides. This took off, and the Muzak Company had its opportunity. The company would bring in orchestras to record calm versions of both original material and popular songs, and then lease and sell these recordings to building owners via subscriptions. Soon office buildings, restaurants, and stores in downtowns all over the country were carrying Muzak. Mass background music had arrived in the Untied States via The Muzak Companyand its “musical architects.” 

World War II really cemented Muzak into the nation’s psyche. Major Squiers was into what we would now call “psychological research,” and he discovered that playing certain types of music in factories at certain times changed moods and made factory workers both happier and more productive. Remember-the US had to suddenly start mass producing tons of things for the war effort, from uniforms and ammunition to vehicles, weapons and more. Many of the workers hired to do these jobs had never worked in a factory or on an assembly line before. Something had to help them adjust. Muzak would do that. It would pipe in blocks of 15 minutes of carefully selected music per hour to help factories run more productively and smoothly. When that worked, factory owners brought hundreds of subscriptions to the service. Muzak was here to stay.  

Although we may not be aware of it, Muzak is all around us still. It has gone from elevator music to fsactories to now designing and providing carefully selected audio programs for all types of businesses, from offices, to restaurants, department stores, warehouses, train stations, malls, and more. Yes, there are places that are seemingly streaming from playlists in coffeehouses. But some of that is Muzak. Small businesses cannot afford the licensing fees for the music they play, and the Muzak Company can, so it does that for them. So it is unconsciously still a vital part of the everyday life of many Americans.  

After thinking about it and researching it some, I am tending to look at he phenomenon of Muzak as a type of universal soundtrack or “work song” for much of American culture. Every culture has some type of music that its members sing or chant or listen to that draws them together, calms them, and keeps them centered as they work and go about their regular day-think of the stereotype of the chain gang worker. Muzak is quietly like that for many of us, whether it is setting a mood and helping us calm down as we eat and/or navigate the aisles in a crowded store, trying to motivate us to spend more money, helping us wait in line without getting too riled up, or what.  It is our “collective work song,” even if it does screw up some great tunes every now and then.   

(To those of you who are new to the mailing list and curious about previous newsletters, go to our website and click on “John’s Blog”         

VOTING IN 2022  

The last day to register to vote in the mid-term election in Pennsylvania is Monday, October 24th. If you are not registered, please register, and if you are, check your registration by the deadline. And please show up and vote. This may well be the most important and consequential election in our lifetimes. We all need to show up and have a say. Thanks