Wednesday, December 28, 2022

Something Borrowed, Something New



Something Old, Something New; Something Borrowed: New Year’s Eve Then and Now  

   (This is one of my favorite posts. I received a number of comments when I wrote it in 2018, so I decided decided to run it again. I hope you enjoy it) 

   New Year's is not "new". Some form of it has been celebrated for thousands of years on every continent and probably for as long as there have been human communities. The first recorded celebrations come from some 2,5000 years ago in Mesopotamia-Iraq. This is the place most historians agree civilization started. Around spring and fall equinoxes, when days and nights were of equal length, they celebrated both the planting season and the harvest season as days of renewal for the cities,  the surrounding areas, and of the earth itself. “Akitu” was the name of the festival, and historians look to those week-long celebrations as the first recorded instances of celebrating what might be called a “new year.” Of course, such celebrations are really much older that that; people did things long before humans invented writing and keeping records.  But once farming and agriculture became mainstays of human activity people simply had to know the when the ideal times were to plant and to harvest. Knowing the cycle of the seasons became essential to city survival.  We also realized that what happened in the sky influenced and heralded what would happen on earth, so we kept track of what we now call equinoxes, solstices, moon phases and more.  And to attempt to have these occurrences benefit us, we developed rituals, celebrations, and practices to try to influence the force or forces that controlled those things. We were literally hoping and praying for outcomes that would benefit us in the future. New year celebrations were originally a part of this process. And like most human celebrations, the observances involved ritual foods, ritual actions, ritual music, ritual dancing, and ritual prayer and introspection. Humans tend to meet the same realities of life in pretty much the same ways, and ritual, religion, symbol, and music are all among the ways we signify that something important and special is taking place. It is simply what we humans do.  

    However, when we think of New Year’s Eve celebrations today most folks are not thinking about global cultural history and/or how what we do today links to what humans have done for thousands of years. Most folks are instead thinking about Times Square, New York City, the countdown, and that big shiny ball dropping down. Even if we are not planning to watch it, we are all aware of this event happening. I used to love to watch it on TV when I was much younger, begging my mother to let me stay up so I could watch it. The crowd, the colors, the noise and the outlandishness all amazed me. There was the confetti, the movie and music stars, the noise, the big ball and the drama of thousands of people counting down all together, me along with them. It was a secular ritual, I realized as I grew older and understood it more. And I was and am still fascinated by how so many aspects of it connect to some of our most ancient ways.  In normal, pre-COVID times, some 1 million people would crowd into Times Square for this celebration-1 MILLION people. The thought that 1 million people would willingly want to stand together in freezing cold weather in New York City for hours is mind-boggling. And many of those people there are quite possible drunk, high, and almost out of control. What sense does that make?? No one in their right mind would suggest doing that as a fun way to spend time in New York City.  But of course, we are often “out of our minds” in the midst of a ritual. Ritual can transform us and take us to a totally different state of being in which the irrational makes perfect sense.  

     It is estimated that over 1 billion—1 BILLION- people watch the show on TV around the world, even in places where the time differences mean it may already really be past midnight and a new year where they actually are.  Who knows how many people watch it on the web or YouTube or Facebook Live. It is truly a worldwide phenomenon-one of the very few things that universally and temporarily unite us as a species. Whether we watch it or deliberately avoid it, we are all aware of it. It is that universal. But how did this come to be? How did this place and this particular ceremony come to symbolize the coming of a New Year to so many people of so many different nationalities, colors, religions, and cultures?  Well, it all started with one businessman and some unique things about the early part of the 20th century.  

  Adolph Ochs was publisher of the New York Times, for which Times Square was named. The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw the advent of new technologies that could seemingly conquer heights, hold up the new “skyscraper” buildings, light up the whole night sky, create vehicles that did not need animals to move, and much, much more. It seemed as if something new was being developed every day. Ochs and the Times were spearheading the northern and western growth of New York City beyond its Lower Manhattan starting point by the rivers and the ports. He wanted to call attention to and spur this uptown growth; he saw it as essential to the economic growth of the city. Ochs liked to throw lavish parties, and he was one of the early promoters of “grand spectacles” that the 20th century would so regularly produce. To that end he started staging New Year’s Eve parties that filled the air above the Times building with fireworks and bright lights. These events became immensely popular, and they drew thousands of spectators uptown to view them and to think about the area. But fireworks above meant hot ashes falling to the ground below. This was clearly dangerous, so the city banned the fireworks for 1907 going into 1908.  

  Ochs’s flashy fireworks display had started drawing Manhattanites uptown and away from the traditional New Year’s celebration at Trinity Church in Lower Manhattan.  There worshipers and celebrants listened to the tolling of the church’s bells to signal a new year. The bells were amplified on sound trucks and they were still a popular draw. But it was still somewhat “old school.” If Ochs was going to continue to draw people uptown and away from Trinity, he needed a new big draw: a new spectacle. He found one a few blocks away from his office by doing what we now call “re-positioning" or "repurposing.”  

    “Time balls’ were an answer to the problem of keeping accurate time at sea for ships. Developed in the early 1800’s, most port cities had them by the turn of the century. They were huge colorful balls that would rest atop high buildings. They would descend exactly at noon every day so that Maritimers could know the exact time. They could then use that information to set their chronometers, measure longitude, and navigate more accurately.  As the telegraph developed, coastal cities with time balls in place began to telegraph the exact time to other cities.  Humans had managed to figure a way to precisely measure and standardize time in a huge way, just in time for the new factory age of mass production that was to come. Most cities had time balls by the early 1900’s, and most people knew what they were. Philadelphia had one atop the Bourse Building for several years. Western Union, the major telegraph company, had one at its New York office near the Times. It would descend every weekday at noon to let people know exactly what time it was. Ochs had found what he needed; he had a large time ball built, and on December 31st, 1907 thousands of people gazed up at the New York Times building and spied a big, shiny, 700 pound ball atop a flagpole on the building that was awash in huge multi-colored electric lights.  

    As midnight approached, workers began lowering the giant ball by ropes and pulleys. On top of the Times building a giant electric sign counted down the seconds until the ball reached the bottom. At the precise moment it landed, the number “1908” lit up the night sky. People went nuts; there were shots fired, people kissing each other, trumpets and noisemakers going off, and these new things called “automobiles” honking their horns. It was a smash hit, and both a tradition and a new ritual were born.  

    The ball drop was immensely popular. Promoting and covering it quickly became a staple of magazine and newspaper articles, and when radio came along it went national. It and Times Square eventually became some of the signature things about New York City. When TV came on the scene, it became a big draw for network TV, pulling in millions of viewers and eventually billions of advertising dollars. It is now an international phenomenon, and I cannot see that stopping anytime soon. The ball has been re-designed several times, it has been made of different substances, and it is now run by a computer timed to the atomic clock. It is not the same 700 pond ball that started the tradition.   

   But in many important ways it really is the same ball. Beneath all of this technological change and modernization and improvement we can see the age-old human practice of meeting important events the world regularly brings to us with ritual, symbol, and as a group. Yes, it started out as a publicity stunt, a smart business move, and perhaps just as a way of showing off. But it has since become something all its own. It is a worldwide, collective ritual now.  It belongs to the world. And for just a little while, that world becomes one big village when it happens. That is the power of ritual taking place, and I think that is a good thing.   

 So however you celebrate New Year’s Eve and New Year’s, know that you are standing with countless generations of humans who have gone before us; who have collectively looked at what was going on around them and figured out ways to respond to it. Yes, we are digital and modern and “civilized,” whatever that means. Essentially, though, we are just humans navigating our way through the world and trying to cope, survive, and maybe do a little better. We make resolutions and celebrate re-birth. We meet the world with renewed hope. Thus it is, and thus it has always been. Do have a very Happy New Year.  

Wednesday, December 21, 2022

The Solstice And What It Means To Be Human



“In the depths of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.” – Albert Camus 

“December has the clarity, the simplicity, and the silence you need for the best fresh start of your life.” – Vivian White 

Today, December 21st, is the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year in our hemisphere. It is a day surrounded by important holidays, rituals, and ceremonies in many religion and national/cultural groups. Hindus celebrated Danhu Sankrati last Friday, and Hanukkah started Monday. Christmas Eve and Christmas Eve and Christmas are still to come, and Kwanzaa is next week. The Solstice itself has been celebrated for centuries in many ancient cultures, and several Wiccan groups celebrate it still. Most of these observances focus on light-coming out of the darkness-and rebirth- new growth and a new beginning. Out of our shortest day grows the possibility of more light, longer days, and a chance to start over, both literally and, just as important, metaphorically. It is a time that unites and brings joy to the celebrants across the globe. 

As a history teacher and cultural observer, I have always loved this mix of observances and celebrations. To me this mix provides a chance to connect with all of human life and history. It is a chance, should we allow it to be, for us to connect with what unites us; our history and beliefs as humans.  

When I taught my 8th grade ancient civilizations class, one of the first questions and themes we examined was, “What does it mean to be human?” We looked at how different cultures organized themselves, expressed themselves, and gave themselves a way of looking at the world and the universe. This time of the year makes me realize that in a real and powerful way. All of us, regardless of where and when we lived and what groups we most identify with, respond to and adjust to what nature presents us with and we pass that down. We come up with patterns to find a way to make it “work” for us and to have “meaning,” to and for us. And just about every culture or group does this in similar ways, recognizing and believing certain common things. 

One is that individually, we are not the center of the universe. We have always needed groups to survive, physically up to a certain point of course, and mentally also. We simply have to work together. One of our major identities has always been a “group identity.” And we have always used rituals of some sort to manifest and confirm that identity. A second belief is that we have to respond to the actual world around us in ways that can allow us to survive, thrive, and establish places for us to live. That is why the vast majority of human rituals are centered around what the physical universe is doing. We have to incorporate that reality into our belief systems. A third thing humans have always believed is that there is more going on than humans have control over and fully understand.  We have almost always been in groups that believe in a power or powers beyond our full knowledge, understanding, and control. We call these things by different names, but we acknowledge them. Fourth, humans all seem to believe that there is constant rebirth, development, and transformation; places to get to beyond where we are. We all make resolutions, go through rites of passage and have some version of “growing up.” We all have this sense of life having some sort of meaning and heading somewhere. We are in motion. 

So when I think of what we as a species do at this time of the year, I can be joined with all that we humans have done and continue to do since forever. I can see myself as part of the eternal human family and really recognize that we have far more things in common than not. Yes, I have my own beliefs and ways of living those beliefs. I have my own terms, rituals, etc. But in so doing I am just joining with the billions of humans who are on the planet with me, have been on the planet before me, and will be on the planet after me. We do the same things, and that is what links us together. We do not have to believe the same way or ritualize the same way, but we do have to do these things in some way simply because we are human. And at this time of the year, seeing all the ways these human things play out renews my hope that we can find our way beyond our petty, unimportant differences and link ourselves to our basic and real universal humanity. That we can go into the longer days and discover ways to share this planet in peace and with love and compassion. I believe such things are possible. After all, I am a human.  

Do enjoy this time of the year and know comfort, joy, good food, good company and the making of new and good memories. Humankind; be both. 

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