Tuesday, February 20, 2024

February-The Short, Ritual Filled Month

 DUKES FANS:       

“The Polar Intuit of northwest Greenland, the northernmost people, call February ‘seqinniaq’, “the month when the sun appears.”  Fred Bruemmer  

    February is the shortest month of the year in our calendar, yet it is host to numerous holidays, observances, and celebrations from many different cultures and places. No week in the month goes by without several holidays and special occasions, religious and secular alike. Yes, we are all familiar with Valentine’s Day and Black History month, and we are probably all more aware of Asian observances such as the Lunar New Year. There are, for US citizens, birthday observances of two of our most popular Presidents, Lincoln and Washington. And, as all roots music fans know, t’is the season of Mardi Gras and New Orelans festivals, music and food. There are days dedicated to saints and other religious notables in this month. And February is also home to Random Acts of Kindness Week, Sisterhood-Brotherhood Week, Scottish Culture Month, National Peace Corps Week, and many more. February is a busy, busy month.  

   Much of this celebration and ritual observance is tied to what nature is doing when February rolls around. In the US we have Groundhog's Day to remind us that spring is coming back, and the awareness of that has always been a time for hope, optimism, and renewal. Ours, of course, is not the first or only culture to do that. All cultures do this, and the month before the arrival of spring has always been a ritual-rich time for humans. Many of our modern February observances are linked to the past.  

   The Romans, who were a great influence on our calendar, did not have separate months during the winter; winter was just a long period of time. January and February were the last months added to the Roman calendar by the legendary second king of Rome, Numa Pompilus, in about 713 B.C.E. February was the end of year for a long time. It was named for the full moon observance of februum, a 2 day festival of purification. There were several ritual celebrations during this month, in fact, honoring ancestors, purity, and fertility. They were also related to the changes in the natural and the animal worlds; things were happening to the fields and with the animals. Spring was on the way, and the city and its inhabitants needed to be pure if the new year was to be a good one. The new year had to be welcomed in the proper fashion.        The Roman calendar was changed several times by the end of the Empire, but February was always the month before spring. So the idea of February as a time to prepare for the new year is seen in many of this month’s observances. Candlemass, Ash Wednesday, and Lent are all in some ways about preparing for spring in Catholic and Catholic influenced cultures. We see it in the Brazilian Carnival and New Orlean’s Mardi Gras- grand parties, feasting, and music before the cleansing time of Lent. Chinese and Southeast Asian cultures recognize an official Lunar New Year, which is obviously about renewal and starting over. Dress, food, and music are all preparations for having a good year. Hindus dress in yellow for Basant Panchami, recognizing the yellow flowers of the mustard seeds in the fields and the coming of new growth. February is both the announcement of and the preparation for the next part of our year.  

    So even as the snow is still on the ground, nature is telling us that its cycle is continuing. Change is quietly going on all the time. Nature does not stand still.   

(Interested in holidays around the globe?  

https://www.timeanddate.com/holidays/ ).

Valentine's Day: The Improtance of Story and Symbol To Humans


DUKES FANS:         

“In most cases, a good story connected to a strong symbol will last much longer and have more effect than any collection of mere facts.”   

    Mac George Bundy, advisor to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson      

“We are humans. That means we are symbol making beings, and that means symbols can move us much more than facts.”   


(Alright-I admit it. I confess. I am too tired to come up with a fresh tidbit for this week’s newsletter. So I pulled up a favorite one from the past. This one on Valentine's Day received a number of comments from folks when it ran last year, so I am repeating it with some minor updates. I hope you enjoy it.)  

Next week we celebrate Valentine’s Day, a day dedicated to the ideas of true and romantic love. As in any culturally significant observance there are rites, behaviors, and symbols that mark the occasion. We are expected to tell people we care about that we love them, to give candy and cards called “valentines” to people we care for, and ideally to play special music, have special romantic meals, and spend “romantic times” with someone. Cartoon hearts are seen everywhere, and the day is supposed to be all about the expression of love and togetherness. People in commercials kiss, hold hands, smile at each other, and look at each other with clear undying devotion.   

Of course, there are lots of people who think of this day as overly corny and totally unnecessary. Many of us, especially those who are without partners, can tend to be saddened by it or, alternately, angry at it. But it is an undeniably important part of US culture, and we can neither deny or ignore it. Americans spend more money on Valentine’s Day than on any other single holiday except Christmas. So it is something major of which we are all aware. According to the website Business Pundit, we spent over $ 26 billion dollars on the holiday last year, much more than on Father’s or Mother’s Day last year. The cards, the dinners, the chocolate, and the flowers all add up. It clearly means a lot to a lot of people, and of course, businesses. But to have reached that economic point, Valentine’s Day had to first be accepted as an important cultural idea. It needed to be embraced by us. And like any other strong cultural occasion, that means this dayneeded two things: a strong story and a mighty symbol.   

   We have all probably heard the most accepted story about Valentine’s Day and the person for whom it is named. This story traces the day’s origins to a Roman priest by the name of Valentine. In the late third century ACE the Roman emperor Claudius was engaged in a series of unpopular and costly military campaigns, and he was having a hard time getting men to join the Roman armies. Claudius believed that Roman men were unwilling to join the army because of their strong attachment to their wives and families, so he summarily banned all marriages and engagements in Rome. The priest Valentine defied Claudius and continued to perform marriages for young lovers in secret. When what Valentine was doing was discovered, Claudius had him beheaded on February 14, probably in the year 278 A.C.E. He was later made a saint, became a martyr for the Catholic Church, and became associated with romantic love and marriage. Supposedly he wrote notes to people while in prison, signing them, “From your Valentine.” Thus was a story and a tradition born.   

   Historians know that there really was a St. Valentine. But historians also know that there were at least three saints named Valentine. The Catholic Encyclopedia lists three martyrs with that name, and all are connected to a date in February. While that may seem strange to us, it is really not that surprising. Valentine, meaning, “having valor, righteousness, and strength,” was not that uncommon a name for Roman boys at the time. Just as happens now, parents then often gave children names that meant something: an ideal or hope. That is why we have so many people in our culture named after Christian apostles and saints, or after political or sports heroes. Every culture does this as a way of passing on ideals, beliefs,and legacies to the next generation.    

  Historians also know that at this time there was also a big February Roman pastoral festival dedicated to health, cleansing, renewal, and fertility. It was called the Feast of Lupercalia, and in one part of the festival the names of single Roman women were put into a box. Single men randomly picked a name out of the box, and they were then allowed to romance the woman whose name they had drawn. When Christianity became the state religion of Rome, many of the ancient Roman festivals were outlawed and/or converted into Christian fetes. In 496 ACE Pope Gelasius decided to put an end to the Feast of Lupercalia. He declared that February 14 would thereafter be celebrated as St Valentine’s Day, giving the day of his martyrdom a new meaning. People were to exchange simple gifts with loved ones such as grain, messages and flowers. The story of Saint Valentine sacrificing his life for love became a widespread and popular one, and he and the date of February 14 became associated with gift giving in the name of love.    

  Eventually the story of Valentine’s devotion to true love became joined to the one thing all great stories need: a symbol. The heart had been important as a symbol since the time of the ancient Egyptians. They saw it as the most important organ of the body. They believed this was the place in the body where wisdom, emotions, personality and more were all joined. They also believed that it was an important vehicle through which gods spoke to humans. Yes, they knew about the chambers of the heart and that blood circulated through the heart-they even did some forms of heart surgery. But that circulation of blood was not the most important job of the heart to them; it's supposed link to all things emotional, spiritual, and intellectual was why it mattered.    

    Greek and Roman cultures drew heavily from Egypt, so the heart was important to them as well, and by the 5th century BCE symbols on coins and in writings depicted the heart looking somewhat as it does on our Valentine’s Day cards: a fat rounded ”V” with two joined curves at the top. Some historians say that particular shape was chosen because it looked like the seed pod of a plant called “silphium’, a plant used as a medicine and as a contraceptive in the ancient world. Others say it came about as an attempt by early graphic designers to represent what the heart looked like in early medical texts. Regardless, by the time of the Renaissance that shape had become a symbol of love throughout Europe. And as Europeans went to other continents, they naturally took their symbols with them. That heart shape became associated with love in most parts of the world and now abounds on all those Valentine's cards, in the design of boxes of chocolate, in TV commercials, and all over just about anything connected with love. The story had found its symbol, and the two would be forever linked.   

   The use of that heart as a symbol for love shows us just how powerful and persistent a given symbol can be, even when it clearly contradicts fact and truth. In the 1640’s William Harvey put forth the notion that the heart was a muscle, and that its primary role was to keep blood circulating in our bodies. By the middle of the 18th century that had become commonly accepted medical knowledge, and by the mid-20th century it was being widely taught, even in junior high school biology classes. So we all know this fact. We also now know that emotions are generated in the brain-we even know that certain specific things can trigger a specific emotion in a particular region of the brain. But our cultural knowledge and common ways of talking regularly ignores our factual knowledge. We still associate the heart with love. We do not say, “My brain is lifted when I am happy,” or, “It is with a heavy brain that I bring you this sad news.”  And we definitely do not know “a place on Lonely Street called “Brainbreak Hotel.”  It is the “heart” we relentlessly talk about in such situations, and more knowledge or more education will not change that. We have our story, and we have our symbol, Dammit, and we’re sticking to them!  

 We humans need to make these stories and these symbols. That is the way we humans behave and make our way through much of the world. Yes, we are also quite “rational.’ Our rationality allows us to do many incredible things, ranging from cooking to simple toolmaking and up to nuclear physics and more. But in our day to day, most ordinary lives, we function with links between stories and symbols. We need this to help us navigate the world and to feel we have a place in it. For better or worse, as Valentine’s Day shows, this is part of what makes us human. And it will probbly always be just so.  


(An article on what Ancient Egyptians knew about the heart:   


Wednesday, January 31, 2024

The Meaning and Power of History

 DUKES FANS:        

“The most effective way to destroy people is to lie and obliterate their own understanding of their history”  

                                        George Orwell  

When I taught history in high school and middle school, i would tell my students two things. One was that much of what I was teaching them was not taught to me or in the schoolbooks I had when i was in school. The second thing I told them was that by the time their kids were middle schoolers or high schoolers, a lot of what I was teaching them would either be expanded upon, thought of differently, or shown to be wrong in some way. That is one of the joys of history for me. There are often new ways to look at and interpret things, new information that is uncovered, new voices to hear from, and new discoveries that can change some of the historical narrative. “History” is rarely indelibly fixed; I can continue to find out new things, find different connections between ideas, and be surprised by what I find. That is simply the nature of history.  

I am thinking out loud about this now for two reasons. One is that we are approaching February-Black History Month. I am very aware of how so much of the history and experiences of Black people in what is now the United States has been ignored, untaught, lied about, and/or hidden. And I am super-appreciative of the work that has been and is being done to uncover and re-examine much of that story and thereby tell a fuller, more inclusive and more accurate story of all of the peoples that make up this nation’s history. Our “truth” can be fuller.  

The second reason is that we are in an ongoing cultural war in which history is being overtly politicized and many politicians and organizations are attempting to limit what people read, see, and think. They are banning books, removing books from libraries, and limiting what can and cannot be taught in schools and colleges. To me this is profoundly ahistorical- it is the exact opposite of what history is really about 

To that end I have attached a few paragraphs from previous newsletters I wrote about US history and what has and has not been generally taught. There are some links to sites that are full of information that might be new and/or interesting to many of you. Enjoy:   

“ Black History Month can be seen as an opportunity to expand our knowledge and better understand where we as an entire culture have been. The month can give us ways to deepen our understandings about this place and ways the past influences the present. We know some things about slavery, for example, but for most of us slavery was something that happened on plantations and in the South-it was about picking things and working in the fields and the “Big House.” The reality is far more complicated than that; there was slavery in each and every colony before the American Revolution and in each and every state after the Revolution. And all the activities and structures needed and developed to support slavery were at the very heart of US economic growth throughout the 18th and 19th century-shipping, banking, the stock market, trade, and more. The New York Historical Society had a monumental exhibit in 2005 and 2006 on Slavery in New York City, and the history it revealed totally changed many people’s ideas about what the 19th century was about and the role of the Big Apple during that time. Most people had not realized that New York had been a slave state and that its role in banking, shipping, and trade made it the actual center of the entire United States slave systemLikewise, there was a website developed in 2003 by historian Douglas Harper called, Slavery in the North that examines how each colony and state north of the Mason-Dixon line carried out their involvement with the “peculiar institution.” Looking at these sites and other books, films, etc deepened my knowledge and unearthed moving and amazing stories about which I had known little. That is one of the wonderful things about history-there is usually so much more beneath the surface of any one thing than we see at first glance. There is always much to be uncovered and brought forth, and I love that digging.  


“As Black History Month proceeds, I invite you to become a kid again for a little while and read some children's literature that can take you to some different people and places in the world and possibly give you some new information and new realizations. Go to your local public library and explore. Re-discover how much fun reading and learning can be just for its own sake. Enjoy the pictures, the stories in these children’s books and welcome some new people into your life. It will be a wonderful and thrilling experience.  

No Small Potatoes: Junius Groves and His Kingdom in Kansas  by Tonya Bolden; illustrated by Don Tate 

Molly, by Golly: The Legend of Molly Williams, America's First Female Firefighter by Dianne Ochiltree; illustrated by Kathleen Kemly  

Black Cowboy; Wild Horses; A True Story by Julius Lester; illustrated by Jerry Pinkney  

 Dear, Benjamin Banneker byAndrea Pinkney; illustrated by Brian Pinkney  

 A good website for searching out African-American children's books: https://aalbc.com/books/children-list.php “   

  I hope this Black History Month finds you looking in new places for new things and discovering and uncovering new facts and new people. There is a universe of largely unknown, people whose lives have amazing stories to tell and whose accomplishments are astonishing. If I may jump start that for you, let me toss out some names with whom you may not be familiar: Benjamin Banneker, Bass Reaves, Miriam Benjamin, Daniel Hale Williams, and Valerie Thomas. If you are curious, look them up and see who they were and what they did, and how they are connected to so many things we take for granted. Dig, uncover, and enjoy. --------------------------------------------------------------