CALENDAR: SOME DATES TO REMEMBER
Following is a rather selective and personalized calendar, containing some important dates to remember. History, hope, and insight are hidden everywhere, in time. It is important to mine this sometimes joyous, sometimes painful treasure, concealed within the passage of our daily struggle.
Every day holds more than meets the eye. Here are some of them.
JANUARY FEBRUARY MARCH
APRIL MAY JUNE
JULY AUGUST SEPTEMBER
OCTOBER NOVEMBER DECEMBER
December 31st - January 1: HAPPY NEW YEAR’S! Drive carefully. Drive defensively. Don’t drive drunk. Real friends don’t let friends drive drunk. It’s only a day, but the fact that we choose this day to look both backwards and forwards, like JANUS, the ancient Roman God with two faces - one old, and one young - makes it a very special day, indeed. If one has had a good year, let this day renew one’s will to build upon the past. If one has had a bad year, let this day remind one that it is always possible to make a fresh start. Blessings to all!
January 6: Three Kings Day (aka the Epiphany). The day on which the "3 Kings" or "3 Magi" - Balthasar, Melchior, and Caspar - were said to have arrived at Bethlehem, from the East, after following a shining star which had appeared to announce the birth of Christ. According to the story, these wise men brought gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to honor the newborn infant who they believed was destined to usher in a new era of peace and harmony on the earth. The image of these wealthy, adoring wise men, riding in, on camels, to worship the baby Jesus, who was born in poverty, in a stable, stirs the imagination and moves the heart. In many parts of the world, this day used to be a day for giving gifts (when people would play the role of the Magi)… It is a day to remind us that the greatest treasure is the treasure within, for that is what the Magi came to worship, in the heart of Jesus, and to lay their treasures at the feet of.
January 9: On this day, in 1879, a band of Cheyenne Indians imprisoned at Fort Robinson, women and children included, made a daring break for freedom that would end up costing most of them their lives. Breaking out of the windows of the US army barracks in which they were confined, they fled into the freezing winter night. Failing to make it to a nearby ranch where they hoped to capture horses, due to the rapid pursuit of soldiers on horseback, they were forced to continue their desperate flight on foot. In spite of all odds, many of them would elude capture and death for two more weeks. The courage and spirit of those who risked everything to try to preserve their dignity, on this day, is worth remembering - and the souls who undertook this journey, deserving of the prayers of anyone who respects people’s desire to be free.
January 15: Martin Luther King Jr.’s Birthday. This great African-American civil rights leader is, without question, one of the greatest figures this land has ever produced. His dignity, eloquence, courage, passion for justice, and commitment to nonviolent, yet effective, struggle, is a legacy that will endure for years to come.
January 15: Martin Luther King, Jr. Day (celebrated).
January 22: The last battle of the Fort Robinson Outbreak. The final band of Cheyenne Indians which fled Fort Robinson on the night of January 9th, was finally cornered. Most were killed, a few captured. They thought their dream died then, but a powerful energy was sent into the Universe on that day. Because of those who believed in it enough to give their lives for it, and thereby gave it power, the dream is still not over. This is a day to light a candle, and to honor the people, and their dream.
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February 12: Abraham Lincoln’s Birthday. My favorite American president, he rose from humble beginnings to become leader of the country during one of its most turbulent and desperate periods. He led the North in the battle to prevent the nation from coming apart during the Civil War, and issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which set the stage for the abolition of slavery throughout the United States. Witty, charming, intelligent, determined, compassionate (and therefore tormented by his role in leading the country during war), he was perhaps the most "real" person to ever occupy the White House. Hats off to "Honest Abe"!
February 13: Fat Tuesday, the culmination and pinnacle of the Mardi Gras/Carnival. According to the calendar of Catholic holidays, LENT, the extended period between Ash Wednesday (the day after Fat Tuesday) and Easter Sunday, is a period of penitence and austerity. In the past, it was taken very seriously as a time of fasting (on fasting days, you could only eat one meal daily - originally in the evening - with meat and wine prohibited). No doubt, the purpose of Lent was to try to bring Christians closer to God by means of eliminating some of the material comforts that sometimes distract one from spiritual concerns, and also by providing a mechanism for atoning for sins, through self-sacrifice and repentance. Lenten sacrifices were also undertaken in solidarity with the suffering Jesus went through as he paid the ultimate price for trying to bring his message of hope into the world. The Mardi Gras/Carnival (perhaps descended from a pagan fertility festival which was integrated into the Christian world), arose as a very normal human response to those days of impending hardship and sacrifice. It was a time for celebrating all the sensual and earthly pleasures about to be left behind. ("Carnival’s" linguistic roots lie in the Latin words for "flesh" and "farewell" - and what a hearty farewell it was!) The Carnival is, today, known for its wild dancing, drinking, flirting, parades, parties, public nudity, or in other ways flaunting of the body, masquerade balls, and sometimes masks, used to conceal one’s identity as a form of protecting one’s freedom to "pull out all stops" with impunity. In Brazil, the Carnival of Rio de Janeiro is the supreme example of what this time is all about, with the Mardi Gras in New Orleans placing a distant second (?) I will always retain fond memories of my own visits to the Mardi Gras in New Orleans: thrilling, life-filled days, distinguished by colorful floats with their exciting crewes, dancers, bands, and armfuls of trinkets, beads, "doubloons", and even "Zulu spears" hurled into our midst; not to mention the mysterious eyes of a girl never to be seen again - one of the secret, vanished moments of youth, that we all hold on to…
February 14: Ash Wednesday. The fun (of Carnival) is over. Catholics go to Church, and the priest smears ash onto their forehead in the sign of the cross. "Remember, man, that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return." The season of fasting and penitence (rarely observed, nowadays), has begun: LENT. It extends all the way until Easter Sunday (which comes April 5, this year). That day, marking the resurrection of Christ, is, of course, a joyous occasion for Christians, justifying the end of the long and arduous fast.
February 14: Valentine’s Day. A day to express your love, affection, or friendship for those you care about. When I was a child in the school, we would always exchange sweet little cards with each other on this day, and, foolish though it may seem, it really did mean a lot to me to get one of those little cards with a heart on it! I hope you and your loved one(s) have a beautiful day!
February 19: President’s Day, the day set aside to honor ALL U.S. presidents at the same time! (Can’t we leave some of the presidents out?)
February 22: George Washington’s Birthday. The soldier who led American forces in the Revolution which led to the independence of America; later, our first president - a man whose integrity and stature helped a rather confused and sometimes uncertain vision, plagued by disagreement and doubt, to get on its feet, and gain credibility both at home, and abroad. He is the one who, saying "I cannot tell a lie", admitted, to his rampaging father, that he was the one who had cut down the cherry tree. Is this story true, or just one that we should listen to as though it were?
February 27: Dominican Republic, Independence Day. Felicidades, y saludos a todos mis amigos dominicanos!
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March 11: Daylight Saving’s Time. Don’t ask me, this isn’t my area of expertise! I just try to remember the simple formula: "Fall back, Spring ahead!" On this day, in most states of the US, we set our clocks ahead, so that 6 AM becomes 7 AM, which means that we lose an hour of sleep, because if we are accustomed to getting up at 6 AM, we will now have to get up at 5 AM, body-time, which is now 6 AM, clock-time. Remember: "Fall back, Spring ahead!" It makes things easier! And don’t be the only one to show up late for school or work! It’s worse than being an April Fool!
March 17: St. Patrick’s Day. A day which commemorates the life of St. Patrick, the priest who brought Christianity to Ireland. Whereas it might not be the happiest of days for the Druids, St. Patrick’s Day, today, is less a day meant to glorify the religious conversion of Ireland than to celebrate the spirit of Ireland, itself, in all its glory, ancient and modern. In some American cities, notably New York, the day is marked by a great parade. However, don’t expect anything like the Mardi Gras! Aside from the few groups of marching bagpipers, playing tunes to stir the soul with their ancient instruments, you’ll find mainly uniformed firefighters and policemen (hey, who’s watching the banks?), politicians seeking your vote, and school bands, filled with "underage" girls freezing in their little skirts. (New York, in March, can still be quite cold.) Later on, crowds who are so inclined move into one of the many "Irish" bars that populate the city, and begin to put away some cups. What? Was I supposed to lay down the blarney?
March 20: The Vernal Equinox, aka, the First Day of Spring. Not being an astronomer, I’ll go with the "First Day of Spring." (All right, I've just learned, it's one of the two days, per year - the other being the Autumnal Equinox - when the day and night are of equal length.) Spring, of course, marks the resurrection - the rebirth - of the earth, as described to us in the myth of Persephone: the time when winter’s silence is redeemed by the vibrant return of vegetation - the leaves coming back to the empty trees, the grasses and plants daring to emerge, again, from the wounded soil, the fields returning to their partnership with man. (Of course, this is for us - dwellers in the northern latitudes! In southern regions of the globe - imagine! - the seasons are reversed!) Still, March 20 is too early to think the cold weather is gone till "next year." Though March is supposed to "come in like a lion, and go out like a lamb", cold days, and even snowfall, still can’t be counted out. Spring weather is usually more consistent once we get into April. ("April showers bring May flowers.")
March 25: Palm Sunday. The beginning of the Christian Holy Week, marking the day that Jesus and his followers entered Jerusalem, as supporters adoringly laid flowers and boughs from palm trees (?) in his path. They were arriving for the Passover holiday, and Jesus was either coming with the hope of bringing his spiritual message from areas of less impact into the heart of the ancient Hebrew world, or to surrender himself to the will of God, and give his life for Humanity (as many Christians now assert). For Christians, Palm Sunday indicates that the pinnacle of Lent, and then release from Lent’s privations, is fast approaching.
March 29: Holy Thursday. In the Christian calendar, this is the day of the Last Supper, in which Christ was "betrayed by a kiss" - the kiss being a standard gesture of greeting, departure, and solidarity among friends. Judas Iscariot, who gave Christ this deceptive kiss, later betrayed his whereabouts to the Roman authorities who were looking for him, paving the way for Jesus’ arrest, imprisonment, torture, and execution. The last supper was actually a Passover meal. The Roman Catholic Eucharist derives from the particulars of that meal, as Jesus described them to his disciples. (Mark 14: 22-25.) According to tradition, Judas afterwards regretted his actions, gave back the money he had been given for betraying Jesus, and hanged himself: a strong testament to the fact that peace of mind and a clean conscience is worth more than all the gold in the world.
March 30: Good Friday. What’s good about it? This is the day that Jesus was paraded through the streets of Jerusalem by his Roman captors, after being scourged. He was made to "carry the cross" to the place of his execution, and adorned with a crown of thorns which mocked him as the "king of the Jews" - for, of course, he was believed by many of his followers to be the prophesied Messiah of the Jews, and not the founder of a new religion. (Certainly, he never thought of himself as a "Christian.") His hands and feet were then nailed to the cross, and he was left hanging there, to die. The bitter irony of this sweet and gentle man, who preached love, peace and brotherhood, being executed in one of the most hate-filled, humiliating, and painful ways imaginable, burns an image into the human consciousness that is hard to forget. Likewise, the image of his loving mother, holding his inert body in her arms, after it was taken down, lifeless, from the cross, has provided us with one of the most tragic and tender images of motherhood possible. Michelangelo attempted to grasp it in his famous sculpture, La Pieta. On Good Friday, hard-core Catholics, mainly in poor lands where the fires of faith continue to burn brightly in hearts that have few material distractions to get in the way, may still be seen marching "the stations of the cross", working their way past little shrines that represent the various points along Jesus’ path of death, lighting candles, praying, and crying for the terrible suffering their beloved savior was put through by men who did not understand the beauty in his heart.
March 27: Easter Sunday. This is the joyful day on which Christians believe that Christ was resurrected. The stone in front of his grave, which had been under constant surveillance by Roman guards, was rolled aside, and it was revealed that Jesus’ body was no longer to be found within! Cynics claimed that Jesus’ own followers had somehow removed the body from the grave, while believers claimed that he had returned to life, and taken his place beside God the Father as a loving and powerful divinity, or element of divinity. Easter Sunday is celebrated, by practicing Christians and many secular Westerners, alike, as a large feast on which families are reunited, and good times are shared by all. The Lenten hardships are forsaken, and the whole world and its vanished hope seem to be reborn. For those more secularly inclined, Jesus takes a backseat to the "Easter Bunny", a giant, generous rabbit - a kind of big-eared Santa Claus - who is said to go hopping around the world, bringing Easter baskets filled with grass or straw, jelly beans, chocolate, and toys to all the good children he can find.
March 30: Passover (begins). An important Jewish holiday, commemorating the liberation of the Jews from captivity in Egypt. Because the Pharaoh would not heed the entreaties of Moses to let his people go, the Lord came in the night to strike down the firstborn of Egypt with a plague of sudden death. (Exodus 12:1-36). The "Lord’s people", the Jews, marked their doors with the blood of a lamb, so that He would know who dwelled within, and "pass over" their homes, to strike only the offending Egyptians. Passover, which begins at sundown, is to commemorate this night, and the Exodus which followed. In addition to its historical significance, and deep spiritual, cultural, and personal meaning for Jews, it is an auspicious time for individuals of all faiths to begin seeking freedom from whatever is holding them captive.
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April 1: Easter Sunday. This is the joyful day on which Christians believe that Christ was resurrected. The stone in front of his grave, which had been under constant surveillance by Roman guards, was rolled aside, and it was revealed that Jesus’ body was no longer to be found within! Cynics claimed that Jesus’ own followers had somehow removed the body from the grave, while believers claimed that he had returned to life, and taken his place beside God the Father as a loving and powerful divinity, or element of divinity. Easter Sunday is celebrated, by practicing Christians and many secular Westerners, alike, as a large feast on which families are reunited, and good times are shared by all. The Lenten hardships are forsaken, and the whole world and its vanished hope seem to be reborn. For those more secularly inclined, Jesus takes a backseat to the "Easter Bunny", a giant, generous rabbit - a kind of big-eared Santa Claus - who is said to go hopping around the world, bringing Easter baskets filled with grass or straw, jelly beans, chocolate, and toys to all the good children he can find.
April 1: April Fool’s Day. This is a day distinguished by the custom of making practical jokes on people. Not the kind of jokes that will get you punched in the face, or cause someone to have a heart attack - nothing like "your favorite aunt is dead", or "your girlfriend just called up and said it’s over" - just something innocent and simple, like: "Your shoe’s untied." Or, "Ew, there’s a spider on your neck!" Where did this day come from? According to one version, long ago, in some parts of Europe, New Year’s Day used to be celebrated on April 1. When the calendar was changed, some individuals didn’t find out about it, and celebrated New Year’s Day on April 1, anyway. These were the "original April Fools", and from then on, it seemed, malicious citizens sought to preserve the joy of that first April Fool’s Day, by tricking somebody else into becoming a laughingstock, for their amusement. But about one day a year of this tomfoolery was all the world could stand. Now, if someone continues to harass you with April Fool’s jokes after April 1, your expected reply is: "You’re the biggest fool at last. April Fool’s is past." Mark Twain is credited with having produced a masterful quote regarding this most peculiar day: "The first of April is the day we remember what we are the other 364 days of the year!"
April 4: The anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (April 4, 1968.) While January 15, the great civil rights activist’s birthday, is surely a happier day, this one is important to remember, also. For it demonstrates the beautiful courage of a soul who would not let fear stand in the way of his conscience. Dr. King faced death many times, in many ways, as he walked through seas of hatred to try to make our society live up to its hallowed words: "We believe these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…" On April 4, 1968, his courage finally caught up with him in the form of an assassin’s bullet. Anyone can speak of justice, but those who are willing to put their lives on the line to achieve it are a rare breed. Thanks to them, the torch of human hope has not yet burned out.
April 15: In the US, this is the usual deadline for filing income taxes on all income earned the previous year. If you’ve waited this long to file, perhaps it’s because you’re not expecting a refund? A day of misery and hell for many. And the fact that so many of our tax dollars are being used in ways that offend our conscience doesn’t help. But who says no to the IRS? (Prison’s waiting, and the lone tax rebel is likely to have about as much impact as a bug on a windshield. Besides - the government does need our money for education and many other worthwhile causes.) THIS YEAR THE OFFICIAL DUE DATE IS APRIL 17! Two more days to figure it out!
April 20: Hitler’s Birthday (1889). This day provides us with an opportunity to reflect. Presumably, on this day, so many years ago, Adolph Hitler was born as a small, naked infant, without any ideas in his brain, without any hatred of Jews, and without any desire to dominate the world (though some, with more esoteric theories, may disagree). How did this innocence get corrupted? How was this tiny helpless infant finally turned into a monstrous killer? It is a good day for contemplating this question, and for asking ourselves if we have it in our collective power to prevent future Hitlers from emerging, either by the way we relate to our children, the way we behave in our families, the energy we create in our cultures, or the environments we construct between nations. Many become furious at the mere idea that "criminals are products of society", and, indeed, personal responsibility for our actions can never be denied. And yet, neither can one discount the poisonous effects of coldness, cruelty, disrespect, neglect, and hypocrisy, in cultures and societies, upon the development of the individual human soul. It’s something worth thinking about. Something that we cannot dismiss. (Let us also remember that Hitler need not be considered in isolation. If it was just him, acting by himself, he would never have been able to perpetrate the horrific destruction that he did. What of the millions of people who enthusiastically supported him, with their naiveté, their false trust, and their anger, magnifying his defects with the power of their minds, their muscle, their industry, their technology, and their weaponry? Whereas it may be impossible for a society to prevent some characters like Hitler from occasionally arising from its midst, surely it must be within a society’s power to prevent millions of people from developing in such a way as to be capable of following a Hitler.)
April 22: Earth Day. A holiday created for the purpose of remembering the Earth we live on: revering it, cherishing it, reminding ourselves of our intimate and inescapable relationship with it, and reminding ourselves that it needs our help. Ecology, the environment, however you choose to see it, we need the Earth, and the Earth needs us! How can we treat our only home in space so callously, so disrespectfully? Earth Day is a day meant to break through the mindset of modern life, which misleads us into taking the Earth for granted, and seeing it as just one more tool to use in the construction of our artificial civilization. It is a day meant to bring us back in touch with the sacred feelings of connection that we once felt every day, before we succeeded in creating the illusion that we had grown beyond the Earth, and ceased depending upon it. It is a day for inspiring activism, or just respect - and for recommitting our hearts to the preservation of the magnificent natural world which enriches us, and preserves us.
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May 1: May Day. This day really has two very different meanings. On the one hand, it represents the last traces of an ancient pagan holiday celebrating the reawakening and renewed fertility of the earth, after the hardship of winter; and on the other hand, it is also known as the great international worker’s holiday, celebrating the essential contribution of workers to the development of society, and serving as an annual reminder of their human value, and the need to always respect their dignity and rights.
The pagan celebration of May Day seems to have occurred in many parts of ancient Europe. In England, even after the coming of Christianity, traces of the holiday remained, and were tolerated, until the Puritans came to power in the 17th century. (The holiday was later restored in a somewhat domesticated form.) In the days before the Puritan repression, village folk would go into the forest to bring back a tree which would serve as the May Pole in their village, about which they would merrily dance; and they would also gather green boughs to carry with them as part of the celebration. While out in the forest, all social taboos and prohibitions regarding sexuality were temporarily suspended, and all manner of illicit sexual activity would be engaged in, as people "disappeared" with partners of their choice, to indulge their deepest fantasies and sensual desires, in the shadow of the ancient fertility rites. Now, of course, May Day is a much more innocent affair - at least, for most of us!
In Germany, traces of the ancient pagan festivities are preserved by the Walpurgisnacht. Originally, on the eve before May Day, holy women and magicians of the pagan religion would gather in the Harz mountains, or other mystical sites, to conduct their sacred rites of spring. Once Christianity gained ascendancy in Germany, these holy women were painted as "witches", in the most negative sense of the word, and the horned god they may have worshipped equated with Satan. Their gatherings became notorious as one of the most dreaded of the "Witches’ Sabbaths." (Of course, this was nothing but a massive propaganda campaign designed to discredit and disempower the ancient religion which had preceded Christianity.) St. Walpurga, who sought to spread the Christian faith in Germany, was said to have been persecuted by these witches and the demons they conjured, and on this night, common folk were said to be able to help the harried saint, by providing her with shelter and support, and by refusing to be intimidated by the Devil. In return, it was believed, they would be rewarded with gold. In parts of Germany, Walpurgisnacht is vigorously and joyously celebrated - not as an extension of the pagan holiday, but rather, as a kind of rejection of it, which still, however, contains some of the ancient spirit of the pagan festivities, hidden within that rejection.
In terms of the very secular workers’ holiday, it may be said that this celebration was initiated in the 1880s, in America, as something more of a protest, actually - a day for workers, who were quite exploited in that era, to present demands for better working conditions. The holiday quickly caught on. In England, the fact that it coincided with the other "May Day" helped it to gain even more popularity, since this was a day that many workers had traditionally taken off, anyway, with or without the support of their employers (the closest they could come to running off into the woods?) However, as May Day gained in popularity throughout the rest of the world, it began to grow less and less popular within the United States. A radical anarchist attack against policemen in Chicago’s Haymarket Square (1886), not long after one May Day protest, led many, in America, to associate that day with dangerous and violent revolutionaries; and as socialist and Marxist workers’ groups in other countries embraced the day as a forum for international workers’ solidarity, and opposition to the capitalist system, it became more problematic for American labor to continue using it for its own purposes. The result was that May Day gradually lost force within the United States, and that American workers eventually consolidated their own workers’ holiday, in September (Labor Day), which was meant to celebrate the value of labor, but within the context of the capitalist system. It may be said that, nowadays, May Day continues to be widely celebrated throughout the world, and that it is not a day which intrinsically supports or opposes any economic system. It simply is a day in which workers may remind the world of their importance, and which they may use to express their views and concerns, at the same time as they emphasize their continued presence and potential impact on the political system.
May 5: The "Cinco de Mayo." A big celebration in Mexico, and in parts of California and the Southwestern United States, which are home to large numbers of ethnic Mexicans. This day celebrates an important victory of Mexico over the French, in 1862. In those days, with the US distracted by its own Civil War, the French had moved in to take control of Mexico, under the pretext of coming in to collect debts owed to them. Their subsequent decision to remain as Mexico’s new colonial masters was a clear violation of the Monroe Doctrine, but the US was in no position to interfere. Mexican president, Benito Juarez, a stalwart, dark-skinned native from the state of Oaxaca, refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of the new French regime, which was presided over by the Emperor Maximilian, and his elegant wife Carlota. On May 5, 1862, in a fiercely contested battle, a Mexican army, outnumbered two to one, defeated a powerful French army outside the city of Puebla. The skill of the Mexican cavalry, and the heart and courage of the Mexican soldier, who valiantly stood his ground against the onslaught of the well-trained and well-equipped European army, enabled this improbable victory to be entered into the annals of history. It did not win the war, and, in fact, the French were to gain the upper hand for a while; what this victory did do, however, was to energize the Mexican people with a sense of their own worth, to fill them with pride, and to help destroy the myth of their inferiority, which others had spread in an attempt to cripple them, and rob them of their ability to stand up to abuse. A people who believes in itself, is hard to keep down. The Cinco de Mayo is most important as a symbol, to the Mexican people, of their own greatness: an indication of who they are, and a sign of who they could be. It is celebrated with parades, dancing, music, good food, and gatherings of families and friends. Arriba Mexico!!!
May 13: Mother’s Day. A day set aside for honoring your mother, by showing her just how special she is. Some people take her out to eat, or do the cooking, in her stead; flowers and candy are common gifts. And, of course, cards and messages of affection are expected. At least a phone call!!! And don’t forget mothers besides your own. Make a special effort to be good to all of them, in recognition of what they’ve done, and in honor of what they mean to someone else.
May 15: The beginning of Ramadan, a holy month in the Muslim calendar. Since the Muslim calendar is not solar, but rather, based upon cycles of the moon, Ramadan falls at a different time each year. [Fixing the dates of Ramadan's commencement and ending is actually a very complicated process, which depends upon sightings of the moon, and varies slightly according to location. In some countries the holy month will officially begin on a different day. This year, for Muslims living in North America, Ramadan will begin on May 15. IT IS IMPERATIVE THAT THOSE WHO CELEBRATE RAMADAN RECEIVE PRECISE INFORMATION FROM THEIR MOSQUE AND/OR OTHER RELIABLE LOCAL SOURCES.] Observing Ramadan by fasting from dawn till sundown from the beginning to the end of the month is considered one of the "Five Pillars of Islam", along with the profession of faith, prayer, carrying out the holy pilgrimage (or Hajj) to Mecca, and manifesting compassion towards the poor and unfortunate. The physical goal of believers, during Ramadan, is to refrain from both eating and drinking during each day’s fasting period, as well as to abstain from sexual relations. This is a time of spiritual purification, and developing one’s spiritual will. By surrendering many earthly pleasures, it is believed that one will be able to come closer to God; to develop the strength needed to be free (for in this world there are many who are enslaved by their desires); and to develop one’s compassion for others (for much cruelty and indifference comes from never knowing what it is like to be hungry; and when one cannot control one’s needs, one must often walk over others or take from them in order to satisfy oneself). One may be excused from fasting for health reasons, though most Muslims make a serious effort to comply with the demands of this holy month if they are at all able to. In the winter, when days are shorter, the fasting is much easier (though it is not easy) than in the summertime, when many hours of daylight turn Ramadan into a truly formidable test of one’s religious belief and character. The hardships of Ramadan are, fittingly, ended by a major feast day, Eid al-Fitr. (This year Ramadan lasts from May 15 to June 14.)
May 28: Memorial Day, observed. This is a major American holiday, and many public offices and banks will be closed.
May 30: Memorial Day. This is a day set aside for Americans to remember and honor their war dead. It was established in the mid-late 1860s, not long after the bloody American Civil War. On the day that Memorial Day is observed, there may be civic ceremonies, the laying of wreaths on cemeteries, and other forms of remembrance. For living survivors of wars, it may be an especially emotional day.
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June 6: D-Day. The fateful day, in 1944, when Allied forces, led by the United States, landed on the French coast, at Normandy, to launch the reconquest of Nazi-occupied Europe. In this history-changing battle, Allied troops encountered formidable defenses and fierce resistance from the German army, and suffered heavy casualties "on the beaches", but finally managed to gain a foothold, and over the next days and weeks, to fight their way inland. By late August 1944, Paris had been liberated, and by April 1945, after a big scare, beginning December 17 and lasting into January 1945 (the Battle of the Bulge), the reign of Hitler, and his brutal regime, was at an end. In an age in which it is, sadly, not possible to blindly cling to the idea of American benevolence, no matter how soothing that might be, it is worthwhile to remember the truly noble and heroic sacrifices made by this country, during World War II, to help liberate a world living under the shadow of monstrous tyrannies.
June 17: Anniversary of the Battle of the Rosebud. On this day, in 1876, a major US military force was defeated by a large war party of Lakota (Sioux) and Cheyenne warriors, principally led by the charismatic Oglala Lakota war chief, Crazy Horse. Crazy Horse was a warrior, mystic, and loner, who spent long periods of time out on the prairie, fasting, praying, seeking visions and guidance from the Great Spirit. He was determined to defend the freedom of his people from the encroaching world of the whites, who were steadily taking away Native land, and violating treaties almost before the ink had dried on them. For years, he had been seeking a way, through his visions, to defeat the formidable power of the whites, which he knew he must one day face again, in a decisive battle. In his meditations, he found a way to apply the knowledge gained from the Battle of the Hundred Slain (the Fetterman Massacre) of 1866, in which he had played a crucial role as a decoy, luring a white army into a deadly ambush. Enlightened by the sacred hours of his solitude, he devised a new way of fighting, in which he could essentially ambush the whites in this same way, anywhere, any place, by attacking their formation at different points, at different times, and in different strengths, giving way in some places, while pinning down troops in other places; until he had disorganized the whites and broken them apart into different, uncoordinated groups, whereupon he could concentrate his forces against any isolated units which he had managed to draw out of the range of the others’ support. Any natural features of the terrain which happened to be available, and which aided in this process, would be exploited to the fullest. Although the casualties inflicted during this battle were not heavy, Crazy Horse’s tactics worked brilliantly to confuse and disorganize the powerful column of General "Three Stars" Crook, and to render it utterly ineffective. The hard-pressed soldiers, who were saved from stumbling into a huge trap by their Crow Indian scouts, spent so many rounds of ammunition that day, trying to weather the storm, that after night fell, they commenced the long retreat back to their base camp. This was significant, because at that very moment, another column, spearheaded by General George Armstrong Custer, was preparing to approach the suspected location of the Lakota/Cheyenne camp from another direction.
This day, besides commemorating a great Native American victory, is a day which shows the power that can be achieved, when one is able to manifest the insights of one’s visions in the world in which we live. Crazy Horse was a master of traveling between the inner and outer worlds, the spirit world and the material world, and this battle, fought on behalf of his people, was, perhaps, the crowning achievement of his mixing of these two worlds.
The Battle of the Rosebud, known to the Cheyenne as the Battle Where The Girl Saved Her Brother, - because a girl, Buffalo Calf Road Woman, rode up on a horse to rescue her brother, Chief Comes In Sight, when his own horse was shot out from under him - also demonstrates the power of the love that can exist between a brother and a sister, and the beauty of valor, which never fails to move our hearts, and to increase our own capacity for being brave in the name of what we cherish and believe in. Before Mulan, there was Buffalo Calf Road Woman.
June 17: Father’s Day. What Mother’s Day is for your mother, Father’s Day is supposed to be for your father. Need anything more be said? (Of course, the presents are supposed to be different! Candy and flowers give way to ties and power tools???) However, for lots of kids these days, Father’s Day is only a sad reminder of the fact that they do not have a father who is a part of their lives. So maybe this is a day not only for sons and daughters to appreciate their fathers, but also for fathers to remember the importance of their fatherly role; and to remember what a difference they can make by staying in their children’s lives.
June 21: The First Day of Summer. AKA, the Summer Solstice. The longest day of the year. Long a sacred day to peoples throughout the earth, because it represents the day on which the life-giving presence of the sun is at its peak. Many ancient structures, including sites such as Stonehenge and some of the Egyptian pyramids, are said to have incorporated the solstice into their structures, which were, among other things, designed to highlight the sun in such a way as to produce dramatic effects, in honor of this holy day. For the less spiritually inclined, summer may conjure up images of vacations, lazy days at the beach drinking Coronas or pin~a coladas, afternoons in the park, barbecues in the backyard; or, on the other hand, stifling, unbearable heat, and the rattling of a fan that doesn’t seem to be doing anything, except making noise.
June 25: Anniversary of the Battle of the Little Big Horn. On this day in 1876, the same basic "crew" that beat "Three Stars" Crook in the Battle of the Rosebud, did it again, this time to General Custer and the 7th Cavalry. The Natives had moved their camp after Crazy Horse’s big victory, but Custer found them in their new location, and dismissing the pleas of his own Native scouts, who told him that he didn’t have enough bullets to kill everyone he would find in the Lakota/Cheyenne camp if he attacked, he pressed forward. Some say he was hoping that a dramatic victory would boost his prestige and lead to his nomination for President of the USA, in 1876. Doubtless expecting this operation to be rather similar to a battle in which he had wiped out a peaceful Cheyenne encampment along the Washita River in 1868, he soon discovered that he had bitten off more than he could chew. This camp was much bigger and stronger, and before he knew it, he was surrounded and fighting for his life. Before long, the battle was over. Crazy Horse, once again, played an important role, but Sitting Bull, the Hunkpapa Lakota chief, is most often credited with being the victor of the Little Big Horn, since he was the big chief, at that time, under whose protective power the many diverse Indian bands that fought that day, had gathered. He, too, is the one who had had a vision during the Lakota sun dance, only days before, of grasshoppers, wearing hats like soldiers, falling into the Lakota camp; and of the Great Spirit’s voice, telling him, "I give you these, because they have no ears." And exactly as he had seen, these soldiers, who did not listen to the voice of justice, nor to the voice of caution, came riding right into his camp, where they were soon overwhelmed, and crushed. For Native Americans, it is a proud day, on which to remember the valor of their ancestors; and a day of inspiration, knowing that if they won such a great victory once, perhaps they can win such a victory again, though it will have to be fought in another way: in a spiritual and cultural way, to increase respect for Native peoples, everywhere, and to help restore the stolen heart of America: the heart which the Great Spirit first set beating into the bosom of this land.
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July 4: The Fourth of July, Independence Day for the USA! This special holiday commemorates the signing of the Declaration of Independence by the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, July 4, 1776: an act which transformed a rebellion of irate and overtaxed colonists against their motherland of Britain, into a clear vision to found a new nation, based upon new political and moral principles. This day signifies not only the conceptual birth of the United States of America, but also the resurrection, in modern times, of the ancient ideal of democratic rule. Brilliant minds and determined souls signed this eloquent and world-shattering document - Thomas Jefferson, its primary author - James Madison, the future mastermind of the Constitution - and Benjamin Franklin, inventor, writer, and statesman to be - to name but a few. And, of course, there was the famous, gigantic signature of John Hancock at the bottom, to add one more dimension to its personality. Hancock said it was not to take up space, that he signed his name so large, but so that "King George might read it without his spectacles" - which was a way of underscoring his courage and dedication, and that of all of them, since to the British authorities, their act was one of treason, punishable by death. These men were, in some ways, a cross between wise men and bandits, which is part of what makes them so lovable. Of course, America did not actually win its independence for some years to come, and there were many trials and tribulations between the signing of this paper, and the actual defeat of the British armies that had been sent to try to crush the revolt. Perhaps this only goes to show that independence actually begins with an idea. Is this, perhaps, why some people fear ideas so much? For the average American, the Fourth of July, in this day and age, is simply a day spent with family, sometimes at home, or at public events; although it is ringed by patriotism, it is more accurately a day of picnics or barbecues, highlighted by concerts and dramatic fireworks displays, lighting up the sky with all sorts of rocket bursts, sparks and colors, and magical explosions, unfolding like flower blossoms in the night. In some places, away from the official festivities, the celebrations go too far, and some neighborhoods seem like war zones, with gigantic explosions setting off car alarms, rattling windows, and filling the streets with the smell of smoke, sometimes even setting fire to homes. At times, as you can see, the Fourth of July may serve as a pretext for something not quite in keeping with the lofty ideals that gave birth to it.
July 20: Colombian Independence Day. (Freedom from Spain) In Colombia, and Colombian neighborhoods in the USA - Jackson Heights, Elmhurst, and Corona in NYC, for example - it’s a day of festivities and national pride. If you’ve never had arepas con chorizos, or empanadas, you don’t know what you’re missing! Saludos, Colombia! Hats off to this beautiful people, so often misunderstood: so full of life and greatness, in spite of the many problems which plague their country.
July 20 is also the anniversary of the first manned landing on the moon. I remember watching this event on TV, in 1969. When American astronaut Neil Armstrong jumped off the ladder of the lunar module onto the surface of the moon, he was so excited that he bungled his lines, which were supposed to be: "This is one small step for [a] man, and one giant leap for mankind." Next day, newspapers printed his words the way they were supposed to have come out, and not the way they actually did. Although many people point out the huge expense of space exploration, especially in the face of the tremendous unmet needs which still plague us, here, on the earth, I cannot deny that there was something magical and beautiful about that moment in history, as a young boy saw it unfold, before his very eyes, on his family’s little black and white TV. A glimpse of the genius and promise of the human race - and a new view of the earth, which, seeming like the moon of the moon, impressed us with its loneliness in space. And the overpowering visual image of our human unity, as members of one single planet in the immensity of the void.
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August 6: The anniversary of the destruction of the Japanese city of Hiroshima by an atomic bomb, in 1945. The USA dropped the newly invented bomb, in an effort to hasten the end of World War II, and to "save American lives." No doubt, an invasion of Japan would have been a bloody affair, for the Japanese were prepared to fight to the end for their homeland, with "bamboo spears" as one said, if they ran out of bullets. On the other hand, Japan was cornered at that time. Its one-time Empire had virtually collapsed. Its air force and navy had been largely destroyed, its ability to strike back was practically nonexistent, there appears to have been some movement towards surrender within government circles, and it seems that a demonstration of the bomb’s power over an unpopulated area would have sufficed to convince the Japanese that further resistance was futile, and led to the intervention of the Emperor to bring about the capitulation that was desired. Why did the atom bomb have to be dropped onto a populous city filled with civilians, including women, children, and old people? Was it for revenge, for Pearl Harbor and Bataan? Or is it possible, as some suggest, that the true purpose of dropping the bomb was to gain some strategic and psychological advantage over the Soviet Union in the coming postwar rivalry that was expected to develop? If so, were 80,000 Japanese lives, most of them innocent civilians, truly deserving of being sacrificed for this objective? Besides the death toll that resulted in the first minutes, days, and weeks, from the immediate impact of the blast, and from burns, wounds of various kinds, and acute radiation poisoning, many more were to die prematurely, in the years to come, from the effects of the radiation they had received that day. Cancer would proliferate. Birth defects, also. Many survivors would be permanently scarred and disfigured; and many women, who were not, would nonetheless be shunned, due to the fear others had that their genes might have been damaged at Hiroshima, which could lead them to be infertile, or result in them giving birth to deformed or retarded babies. No one victim better exemplifies the tragedy of Hiroshima than Sadako Sasaki, the Japanese schoolgirl who was fatally poisoned by the attack, as a baby, and who struggled, as she slowly died of cancer, to make one thousand origami paper cranes. According to Japanese folklore, all who did so would have a wish granted to them, and hers was to be healthy again. Sadly, her wish did not come true. She passed away after a heroic struggle, on October 25, 1955. But Sadako’s valor, combined with her innocence and desire to live, did succeed in moving the heart of the world, and in reminding it, once again, of the unacceptable price of our ambitions, whenever they dare to overlook the value of even one human life.
Hiroshima, of course, ushered in the age of nuclear weapons on our planet, and cast, for the first time in human history, even more than the bubonic plague, or Biblical visions of the apocalypse, the specter of the absolute destruction of human life over our world. It showed us the incredible capabilities of our technology, at the same time as it showed us the backwardness of our moral principles; it showed us the brilliance of our minds, at the same time as it showed us the deficiencies of our hearts; it showed us the terrible face of our barbarism, magnified by our inventiveness, and in so doing, showed us, more clearly than ever before, the need for us to develop our compassion. The dreadful mushroom cloud which rose above the place where Hiroshima used to be on the morning of August 6, 1945, seemed to place a clock over our heads, and to begin the final countdown towards either a new age of spiritual and moral enlightenment on the earth, or one last, and irreversible, act of self-destruction. This is a day to pray for peace and sanity in our world, as well as to pray for the souls of those who lost their lives at the hands of a society that should have known better.
August 9: As if once was not enough, the US did it again, on August 9, 1945. This time the city that received the atom bomb was Nagasaki, and another awful tragedy resulted. More carnage, more obliteration, more ruined lives. The two bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki did achieve their military objective: the unconditional surrender of Japan. But, once again, it may be asked if this surrender could not have been brought about in a more humane and "civilized" fashion. If just a little more thought, and a little more heart, might not have saved many beautiful lives, and kept the darkest seed of all times from being planted into the fields of history.
August 13: This is the anniversary of the fall of the Aztec Empire at the hands of the Spanish conquistadores, in 1521 AD. The Spanish effort to conquer that mighty Native Empire in the heart of Mexico, had had its ups and downs: the first, successful march of the Spaniards into the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan (Mexico City) in 1519; their ambiguous stay as guests (?), enemies (?); their seizure of the Aztec King, Moctezuma II, as a hostage, and their attempt to rule through him; the murder of Moctezuma, and the fierce counterattack of the Aztec warriors, which drove them out of the city, very nearly wiping them out in the process, in 1520; the regrouping of the Spaniards, and their return, with a large army of native allies, to lay siege to Tenochtitlan/Tlatelolco in 1521. Throughout the conflict, the Aztecs displayed a valor and fortitude never exceeded in the annals of history. They were, essentially, confronted with an otherworldly civilization, armed with steel armor, steel swords, firearms, and horses, all unknown in their own land and time. They were also ravaged by an overpowering plague of smallpox, introduced by the European invaders, and paralyzed, at first, by the dreadful fear that the Spaniards might be divine warriors serving the God Quetzalcoatl, who had come to take back his ancient throne in Mexico. For me, the only modern day equivalent I can conceive of to convey a sense of the vast power differential, the intimidating technological disparity, and the overwhelming psychological sense of hopelessness that these Aztec warriors must have felt in the face of the mysterious foe that had just appeared from across the sea, would be to imagine if our own civilization were suddenly to be set upon by an extraterrestrial civilization, from beyond the solar system. How, in the face of this dreadful culture shock, were they able to preserve their spirit, and to keep on fighting until the end? How they were able to avoid folding, and laying down before the invaders? How were they able to stand up, and keep on making the invader pay for every step he took, into their city, in spite of the almost cosmic sense of doom which they bore upon their shoulders? The only possible answer is an extraordinary sense of valor, an unbreakable sense of pride, an inextinguishable loyalty to their own Gods, and a sense of self-love, that would rather make them die as the people they wanted to be, than survive as something else. No one can deny the many grave faults of the Aztecs’ civilization. And yet, neither can its courage be denied. Here is a moving account of the fall of the Aztec Empire, as told by Fernando Horcasitas in The Aztecs, Then And Now (p 82):
"Thirty thousand people are thought to have died during the [80 day] siege [many from starvation]…
"The end came on August 13, 1521, when the main temples of Tlatelolco fell one by one into enemy hands. Let us permit Father Duran, who heard the story from the Aztecs themselves, to describe the close of the drama:
" ‘When Cortes faced this youth, a man of refinement and of handsome appearance, he said to Malinche, the interpreter, ‘Ask Cuauhtemoc why he permitted the destruction of the city with such loss of life among his own people and ours? Many were the times I begged him for peace!’
" ‘The young king answered, ‘Tell the captain that I have done my duty; I have defended my city, my kingdom, just as he would have defended his had I attempted to take it away from him. But now I have failed! Now that I am his captive, let him take this dagger and kill me with it!’
" ‘Putting forth his hand Cuauhtemoc took a dagger that Cortes carried in his belt and placed it in the latter’s hands, begging to be slain. Cortes was greatly troubled by these words and though he did not rise from his seat, he spoke soft and consoling words to Cuauhtemoc and made him sit next to him.’
"Thereupon a furious thunderstorm fell upon the wrecked city, a tempest such as the natives themselves had never seen, and as night was falling Cortes, accompanied by his followers and by Cuauhtemoc and other Aztec prisoners, abandoned the dead metropolis and set out for nearby Coyoacan.
"Today, at the entrance of the recently excavated ruins of the temples of Tlatelolco in Mexico City, an inscription carved in stone reads: ‘On the thirteenth of August of 1521, heroically defended by Cuauhtemoc, Tlatelolco fell to Hernan Cortes. This was neither a victory nor a defeat. It was the anguished birth of the mestizo nation that is the Mexico of today.’"
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September 5: The anniversary of Crazy Horse’s death, 1877. (For more on Crazy Horse, see "June 17.") This is the day on which the great Oglala Lakota chief Crazy Horse was killed at Fort Robinson, Nebraska, after he had already brought his people in to the reservation. Fearing his influence, and angered by his aloofness to their world, Crazy Horse’s enemies had conspired to create a situation which enabled them to "get him out of the way." After being told that he would be able to talk to someone about the tense situation that had arisen, Crazy Horse found himself being led into a prison in Fort Robinson, about to be put into chains. His freedom-loving spirit could not tolerate the prospect of imprisonment, and so, protesting the trick that had been played on him, he drew his knife, saying he would not go inside. Then, while one of his former friends restrained him, an American soldier plunged a bayonet into his side, fatally wounding him. As Black Elk wrote of this event: "They could not kill him in battle. They had to lie to him and kill him that way." That night, the Oglala camp was filled with mourning for the loss of their great hero. Broken-hearted, the chief’s parents took his body away and buried it in a secret place, known only to themselves, beyond the sight of the white men who had killed him. Said Black Elk: "It does not matter where his body lies, for it is grass; but where his spirit is, it will be good to be." This is a day to remember the courage, brilliance, and vision of a man utterly devoted to his people, and their dignity, and way of life: a man who was true to his beliefs until the end.
September 3: Labor Day. This holiday takes the place of "May Day", in the U.S., to honor the contribution of workers to American society. It is always celebrated on a Monday (making for a long weekend), and it is most often a day of rest, recreation, or family visits, without the sociopolitical intensity which May 1 sometimes assumes in other lands. (For more on the separation of May Day and Labor Day, see "May 1.")
September 9: Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, begins at sundown. (The exact date of this holiday varies from year to year.) According to ancient Jewish tradition, this day marks the anniversary of God’s creation of Adam. Unlike the standard American New Year’s, Rosh Hashanah is not a time of drunken festivities and wild partying; rather, it is a holy time of introspection, life-review, and penitence, and typically, a great deal of time should be spent in the synagogue. However, families often get together and share close times. And many families will eat apples dipped in honey, which are not only a tasty treat, but a symbol of the "sweetness" which they hope the new year will bring. The new year ushered in on Sept. 9, 2018, will be 5779 according to the traditional Jewish calendar.
September 11: This is a day best known to us for the terrible terrorist attacks launched by al-Qaeda (2001) which collapsed the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City (as well as badly damaging a part of the Pentagon in Washington, DC, and destroying four airplanes filled with people). Many lives were lost on this day, many families’ hearts were ripped to pieces. Severe psychological and economic repercussions followed. And the possibility that the world might be entering into a new age of terrorism, filled with threats to our physical safety, and to the integrity of our political system and its long-standing traditions of civil liberties, hit home with depressing force. Will 9/11 be the beginning of the end of America, as we know it, or can our society hold onto the best of itself, as it adapts to a changing world? Only time will tell. Let’s all do our part to try to bring about the best results possible, as we never forget those who lost their lives on this tragic day, and the many hearts that were broken.
9/11, it must be noted, also marks the anniversary of the "golpe de estado" (military coup) in Chile (1973), which brought General Augusto Pinochet and his dictatorship to power, resulting in the overthrow of the democratically-elected socialist government of President Salvador Allende (Allende died in the assault, as he defended the presidential palace, which was encircled by tanks and bombed by airplanes). Sad to say, this coup was engineered by the U.S. government, which disliked Allende’s politics. The following years saw terrible repression in Chile, as Pinochet’s military regime "disappeared" and executed large numbers of opponents, and imprisoned, tortured, and exiled many more. Thankfully, after years of suffering, democracy and respect for human rights returned to Chile. But for many, it was too late.
9/11: two huge tragedies. This is an important day for reflection. And a day for committing ourselves to making the world a better place, that future generations need not ever go through a "9/11" of their own.
September 16: Mexican Independence Day. On the night of September 15, 1810, at 11 PM, Padre Hidalgo, a priest on the side of the poor and oppressed, rang the bell of his little church in Dolores, Mexico, to call the people before him, and there urged them to rise up against Mexico's Spanish colonial rulers. His passionate incitation to revolt - "Viva Mexico! Viva la independencia!" - came to be known as the "Grito de Dolores" ("the cry of Dolores"). The Mexican independence movement had begun. Although Hidalgo lost his life in the fierce struggle that followed, the Spaniards were finally defeated, in 1821, enabling Mexico to become an independent nation. Nowadays, large crowds gather in the zocalo (the central plaza of Mexico City) on the night of the 15th, and at 11 PM the President repeats Hidalgo's famous "grito", and rings the same bell which Hidalgo rang to initiate the war for independence. The next day is filled with celebrations, parties, spectacles, and feasts, as Mexicans mix a spirit of national pride with an opportunity to have good times among family, friends, and countrymen.
September 17: The day on which the great Southern Cheyenne war chief, "Roman Nose" (Woquini) was killed, at the Battle of Beecher Island (1868). A party of white scouts had been surrounded by a band of Lakota braves, joined by many Cheyenne warriors who were used to being led into battle by Roman Nose, their legendary chief, who was considered to be blessed with powerful "medicine" (magic/spiritual powers) which allowed him to expose himself to bullets without being hit. They had seen this before, in one battle in which he had ridden out all alone in front of a line of enemy soldiers, splendid in his war bonnet, and then, wheeling his horse around, ridden all along their line, inducing them to empty their rifles in an effort to take down an obviously important chief. Roman Nose had done this to boost the confidence of his warriors, and also to set up their charge, by drawing the soldiers’ bullets against himself, and emptying as many of their guns as he could. (The opening scene of Dances With Wolves may have used this battle as its inspiration.) Now, however, with this small band of frontier scouts and soldiers surrounded at "Beecher Island" - a little spot of prairie partly sheltered within a dry river bed - the Cheyenne warriors wondered why Roman Nose was not joining in the fight. Several charges had already been made, and they were losing men. (What they did not know is that these troops were newly armed with rapid-firing repeating rifles as opposed to the slower-firing muskets of the past. The increased firepower was now inflicting heavy damage.) Where, wondered the warriors, as more and more of their comrades were cut down under this withering fire, was their great chief, and the inspiration and spiritual power which he always brought to them in times of need? It turned out that several days before, Roman Nose had inadvertently broken one of the spirit-rules which gave him power. Unknown to himself, until it was too late, he had eaten food touched by a metal implement - and now, only lengthy rituals of purification could restore his life-saving medicine to him. But the warriors were impatient. The battle was already on, and could not be delayed. Some warriors even questioned his courage. Said one: "Here is Roman Nose, the man we depend upon, sitting behind this hill." Seeing his men dying without him, crying out his name, wondering where he was, while some others doubted what mattered most to him in the world - his courage - Roman Nose decided that he must act. He decided that he must go into battle, even without his medicine, in order to live up to what the role of "chief" demanded of him - for in Native culture, being the chief of a warrior society was a privilege that had the high price of demanding that one also be the bravest. Knowing that he would die without his powers, but smiling about it, Roman Nose put on his paint and his fabulous war bonnet, then rode out to the very front of his warriors, and led them in a furious charge towards the island. During the brave assault, he was caught by a bullet in the side, whose impact knocked him off of his horse; badly-wounded, he lay at the edge of the island for hours, surviving only due to his enormous strength. When his warriors were finally able to get to him, after darkness fell, and to drag him back to safety, it was already too late. Roman Nose died shortly thereafter. But, in dying, he had showed all of his people, for generations to come, the greatness of his courage, and the greatness of his sense of duty and solidarity with those who looked up to him. He wasn’t the kind of leader who sent others to die in his place; and he didn’t hang back, even when he knew it would cost him his own life. This is a good day to remember the beauty of that concept of leadership and responsibility to others, as well as to remember the greatness of one man’s soul.
September 18: Yom Kippur, most sacred day in the Jewish calendar, falls on different dates, in different years. This year, it falls on September 18. It is a day set aside for repentance, and it is characterized by fasting and prayer. ("Tsuvah" is the Hebrew word for repentance, and its literal meaning is "returning" to God and the holy path laid down in Jewish religious teachings. Jews, on this day, make a conscious effort to compare how they have been living with how they should be living, according to their beliefs and moral codes; and, ideally, should attempt to use this time of prayer and reflection to return to their rightful path if they have in any way wandered off of it, or become lost.)
September 22: The Autumnal Equinox. This is one of two days in the year on which the day and night are of equal lengths. More importantly, it marks the beginning of autumn. As that season progresses in the northern latitudes, the earth gives up its last fruits of the year, and then, in a final blaze of glory, lights up the trees with brilliantly-colored leaves which seem more beautiful than ever as they begin to fall, carpeting the world below with paths of gold. Poets’ hearts are moved, as the earth’s changing mood reminds them of the passage of time and the transience of all life. Edmond Rostand set the final scene of his famous play, Cyrano de Bergerac, in the midst of autumn’s melancholy:
CYRANO: The leaves -
ROXANNE: What color - perfect Venetian red! Look at them fall.
CYRANO: Yes - they know how to die. A little way from the branch to the earth, a little fear of mingling with the common dust - and yet they go down gracefully - a fall that seems like flying!
While Japanese haiku master Matsuo Basho wrote:
On a bare branch
a crow has settled -
It seems to be a time for nostalgia and reflection, as the earth’s life force ebbs, and its abundance fades like a vision before reality. And yet, the power of life, as we know, does not vanish altogether, it merely goes into hiding. In its apparent absence, it is still present, cradling new spring times within its deep sleep.
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October 2: The anniversary of the "Tlatelolco Massacre", in Mexico City, 1968, in which 300 or more people were killed when government soldiers and police opened fire on a crowd of over 5,000 demonstrators gathered to protest political and social injustices in Mexico. The demonstration had been organized by Mexican university students in a time of turmoil and dissent in Mexico, Latin America, and the world, and took place in "la Plaza de las Tres Culturas" (the Plaza of the Three Cultures), in an open space surrounded by an apartment complex, an old Spanish church, and Aztec ruins. Government forces blamed the outbreak of fighting on leftist snipers mingling with the crowd, but by most objective accounts, the violence was begun by government troops, and the tragic night was little more than a one-sided shooting spree in which unarmed and peaceful protesters were fired upon by soldiers armed with machine guns and rifles. The purpose of the attack - and the persecution which followed (for many anti-government activists and suspects were rounded up, tortured, and/or imprisoned) - was to break the back of the student movement in Mexico, and to "clean things up" before the beginning of the 1968 Olympics (held in Mexico City), so that protesters could not use the international stage of the Olympics to publicize their views. On this day, in 1968, a precious, vibrant and socially clamorous generation of Mexicans was grievously wounded. The impact of the violence went far beyond the "death toll", reaching to the very heart, soul, and consciousness of the Mexican nation, scarring its hopes and dreams, but not destroying them: one more painful step on a long journey that has been both brilliant and tragic; one more painful step on a long journey whose final destination is still unknown.
Paradoxically, this day of violence is also the birthday of Mohandas (Mahatma) Gandhi (1869), perhaps the most celebrated advocate of non-violent social action as a means of achieving justice the world has ever seen. Gandhi, trained as a lawyer and inspired by Hindu traditions of spiritual discipline, is famous for his leadership in the Indian struggle to win independence from Great Britain. While recognizing that non-violent civil disobedience might not prove effective in all times and places, he found that the British pretense of being morally advanced and highly "civilized" (contradicted by the actual mechanics of colonial control) offered him the perfect opportunity to challenge their authority by putting their self-image on the line, and forcing them to confront the painful gap between their avowed values and their actual practices. Whereas violent resistance to British rule would have enabled the British to "act in self-defense" and persist in their portrayal of the Indians as a "violent, uncivilized race" in need of British authority and "guidance", non-violent resistance turned the tables on the colonizers, leaving them no choice but to give India back to the Indians, or else unleash brute force against peaceful protesters and dissenters, who would not strike back or provide any "pretext" for such aggression. The result was that British efforts to crush the vast movement of non-cooperation and dissent which Gandhi helped direct against the European colonizers, who needed the compliance of native Indians to run India, were stranded, in the world’s eye, as acts of naked aggression and bullying. Through the ups and downs of the struggle, the dignity and high moral character of Gandhi and his followers began to emerge undeniably into view, while it was the British who began to appear "uncivilized." It is hard for a nation to wake up so far from its self-image - to have its mask of goodness removed, and to see its monster-face exposed so clearly in the mirror - just as it is hard for a nation to hold its head up among other nations, knowing that it is no longer seen as what it wants to be, or thought it was, but as what it is. Moved by a combination of international pressure, shame, and the overwhelming logistical problems of controlling a gigantic country in a state of revolt, the British finally "caved in", and granted India its independence in 1947. Gandhi was assassinated not long afterwards, in 1948. Although his dream of a single, free and united Indian nation, distinguished by harmony between Hindus and Muslims, was in many ways shattered in the aftermath of independence, as violence, riots, and the partition of India into the separate nations of India and Pakistan followed, his achievement was, nonetheless, monumental, as was his historical impact. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Cesar Chavez, effective fighters for civil rights and social justice in the United States, were both heavily influenced by the legacy of this great Indian champion of non-violent social action.
October 5: On this day, in 1813, the great Shawnee chief Tecumseh was shot and killed in a battle against American troops. Tecumseh is remembered as a brilliant orator and statesman, as well as a formidable war chief, who succeeded in uniting many Native American tribes into a great coalition to try to beat back the advance of white American settlers into Indian lands. Many of his words (including the following two excerpts) were recorded at various councils, and even without having ever met this charismatic patriot in the flesh, one can get a sense of his tremendous energy, determination, and passion through them:
"Where today are the Pequot? Where are the Narragansett, the Mohican, the Pokanoket, and many other once powerful tribes of our people? They have vanished before the avarice and oppression of the White Man, as snow before a summer sun. - Will we let ourselves be destroyed in our turn without a struggle, give up our homes, our country bequeathed to us by the Great Spirit, the graves of our dead, and everything that is dear and sacred to us? I know you will cry with me, ‘Never! Never!’"
"My heart is a stone: heavy with sadness for my people; cold with the knowledge that no treaty will keep the whites out of our lands; hard with the determination to resist as long as I live and breathe. Now we are weak and many of our people are afraid. But hear me: a single twig breaks, but the bundle of twigs is strong. Someday I will embrace our brother tribes and draw them into a bundle and together we will win our country back from the whites."
During the War of 1812, between the British and Americans, Tecumseh took the side of the British, accepting them as a valuable ally in his efforts to beat back the advance of the American settlers into the West. However, the British, lacking his motivation, showed no will to fight when confronted by an American advance in 1813, and it was all Tecumseh could do to convince them to stand up with him and fight against the Americans. On October 5, in the Battle of the Thames in present-day Ontario, British forces, reluctant to be there in the first place, broke quickly when charged by the Americans, leaving Tecumseh and his warriors alone to continue the fight. Outnumbered and outgunned, the great chief went down fighting to the end, dying for his dream, rather than giving in to a life without it. Today, Tecumseh’s legacy of sincerity, vision, and courage remains as an inspiration for all who honor America’s Native past, and present.
On this day, October 5, in 1877, another great Native American chief also suffered a bitter defeat. Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce, after leading his people on a long and heroic retreat to try to escape from American soldiers into Canada in order to be able to continue living free, even if not in their own homeland, was finally forced to surrender, after being trapped and pinned down by a much superior force only a few miles from the border. It is on this day that he gave his deeply moving and often quoted speech:
"It is cold and we have no blankets. The little children are freezing to death. I want time to look for my children, and see how many of them I can find. Maybe I shall find them among the dead. Hear me, my chiefs. I am tired; my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever."
Chief Joseph spent the rest of his days on the reservation, crusading in vain to be allowed to return to the ancestral lands of his people. Though it did not serve him in his own lifetime, his dignity and suffering have made an impression that time has not been able to erase.
October 8: Columbus Day (celebrated). Many people in the US get Columbus Day off, and since it would be a tragedy to get a day off that one already had off to begin with (such as a Sunday), Columbus Day is always celebrated on a Monday which falls somewhere around the actual date of Columbus’ landing in America. The day is usually marked by parades honoring Italian-Americans, especially in New York City, but it is now, also, often marked by counter-parades or demonstrations which emphasize the damage to native cultures caused by the European conquest of America.
October 12: Columbus Day. This is the day, in 1492, when Columbus, an Italian navigator employed by Spain, landed in America. For some Americans, it is a day for honoring their Italian heritage, and celebrating the "discovery" of America by Europeans. For others, the day is hardly so celebratory, representing, instead, the day on which the conquest and colonization of the Americas by Europeans began, resulting in the destruction and subjugation of countless Native American cultures, and massive loss of life brought on by war, disease, enslavement, and exploitation.
October 31: Halloween. This holiday is a hybrid mixture of pagan festivities, a Christian holy day, and embellishments of popular culture. All Saints’ Day, on November 1, is a sacred day in the Roman Catholic calendar, dedicated to the memory of the departed faithful, and Halloween is the evening leading into that day (just as Christmas Eve leads into Christmas). However, Halloween’s beginnings really date back to the days of the ancient Celts, who marked the conjuncture of the "end of summer" (Samfuin), the collection of the year’s harvest, and the imminence of winter with a major celebration, known as Samhain ("Hallowday"). On the "Hallow Evening", the Celts believed, the past, present, and future became one, and they gave thanks to Nature for her generosity, and prayed for continued prosperity and life in the year to come. At the same time, the spirits of departed ancestors were believed to return to earth, as winter’s chill approached, to seek momentary comfort beside the fires of their relatives. But it was a time of increased supernatural activity, in general, as not only the spirits of departed loved ones, but also spirits of all kinds, including evil spirits, fairies, and elfin folk were believed to be up and about. One interesting custom/folk belief from these early times: it was believed that if one looked into a mirror while eating an apple, on this day, one could see an image of one’s future mate! As time went on, some of these Celtic customs and beliefs fused with, or were accommodated within (or accepted on the edge of) the Christian holiday of All Saints’ Day. In the USA, Irish, Scottish and English immigrants brought these traditions with them, where they mingled with German folk traditions pertaining to witches (who traditionally held one of their most important "Sabbaths" on Halloween. See May 1, for more on German witch legends). In this way, witches became central figures in the American celebration of Halloween (and in the new Halloween concept which radiated outwards from the US, back to various other countries throughout the world). Classically, in the US, children would go out on Halloween (accompanied by their parents or older children), to knock on the doors of neighborhood homes, and demand "Trick or Treat!" - meaning, "give us candy or some other treat, or we’ll get into mischief" (like breaking eggs or spraying shaving cream on the doorstep of an unobliging home). However, the "trick" threat was rarely carried out (except by "punks", who always took advantage of Halloween to make trouble). On this night, many children would go out dressed with masks and costumes, some disguised as witches, some as devils or skeletons, or monsters of various kinds, or superheroes, or other fantastic beings: quite an assortment of characters, who generally had one thing in common, however: they would all come armed with bags in which to collect the various treats offered to them in the neighborhood, sometimes a considerable haul by night’s end! (This aspect of Halloween - going door to door to ask for treats - is said to be based upon a custom of poor Irish peasants who, in the past, would go from door to door on this day, asking for food so that they, too, could have a proper celebration.) On Halloween, here, in the US, many homes sport Jack-O-Lanterns - hollowed-out pumpkins with faces carved into them, and burning candles set inside to give off an eerie glow - as well as other appropriately "scary" decorations. The door-to-door travels of children demanding "Trick or Treat", however, have greatly diminished throughout much of the US, in response to a growing depersonalization of relations here, a declining sense of community, and a loss of trust in the goodness of others. Occasional sociopathic behavior has taken away much of the fun of the day, replacing it with anxiety, as some children have been beaten up and robbed, and even had their candy sabotaged with pieces of glass or pins hidden inside, or laced with drugs. More and more, mothers are keeping their kids at home these days, and replacing "trick-or-treating" with parties held in their own homes; or else, limiting their children’s trick-or-treating to daylight or early-evening-hour visits to a small number of neighbors who are personally known to them. The history of Halloween - its origins, development, and decline - surely has a lot to say about contemporary American society - where it came from and where, unfortunately, it seems to be headed…
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November 2: The Day of the Dead, or El Dia de los Muertos, an important Mexican holiday in which the living honor their relatives who have passed on before them. The Day of the Dead coincides with the Catholic holiday "All Souls Day", but is really based upon Aztec sensibilities, beliefs and rituals concerning the spirit world. The sacred period actually begins with All Saints’ Day (November 1), which corresponds with the day of the "angelitos" (the "little angels", or children who died young), who are believed to come back home on that day; the next day, November 2, is for deceased adults to return home. The Day of the Dead is a day which Mexican families have set aside for their departed loved ones. The family table is set with food for the spirits, who are expected to visit on that day: a feast which could include mole, sugar breads (panes dulces), tortillas, tamales, and/or many other delicious dishes, as well as flowers, candles, and water for drinking (and sometimes liquor or cigarettes). The meal is actually an offering to the spirits, who are believed to be able to come back from the realm of the dead on this one day per year, and to partake of the essence of the food that has been prepared for them, which will nourish them for the coming year (as will the love which went into the preparation of the food). As one old man described the significance of this day (for what he gave to the dead now, others would one day give to him): "For all eternity, my descendants will remember me and, on the eve of every second of November, I will come back to them. I will find the house filled with food, incense, the light of candles, and warmth. And I will come in and, forever and ever, that one night of the year, I will be among my own." [The Aztecs Then And Now, Fernando Horcasitas, p. 137.] Flower petals of the orange marigold (cempazuchil) are often strewn from the room of the feast, through the home, and out onto the street - a trail of flowers leading into the house, so that the spirits can find their way home. Sometimes, bonfires are lit in front of homes, for the same purpose. (Afterwards, the family will, of course, eat the physical substance of the food which the dead are believed to have already "tasted" in the spirit way.) Also common on this day are visits to the cemeteries in which one’s relatives are buried. Families will sometimes eat picnics there, beside the graves of their loved ones, or else leave offerings. Throughout this period (during the many days leading up to Nov. 2), there is an abundance of panes de muertos - baked bread (of the dead) in animal and human forms; candy skulls; and related toys and gifts (for example little coffins, from which a skeleton jumps when a string is pulled, and various kinds of grotesque yet somehow amusing figurines). The popular culture and traditions of the Day of the Dead are still very prevalent in the Mexico of today, though naturally, there are differing levels of meaning and attitude towards the day, depending on who is celebrating. For some, the day is more or less an enjoyable and colorful holiday, nothing more; while for others, it continues to be a deeply spiritual experience that keeps them connected to their ancestors.
November 4: Daylight Saving’s Time ends. Remembering the old formula, "Spring ahead, Fall back", that means that we set our clocks back. 7 AM (when your alarm clock rings?) now becomes 6 AM, which means that you still have another hour to sleep before you have to get up. What a pleasant way to gain an hour. Could we do this with years?
November 6: Election Day: always a Tuesday in the beginning of November (but never on the 1st); the day varies from year to year. This is the day set aside for elections in the USA. In order to vote for one’s elected officials, including presidents, senators, congressmen, governors, and mayors, one must first register to vote - and next, one must make the determination to exercise one’s "civic right" to do so, and actually get out to the polls and cast one’s vote. Although a lot more needs to be done to improve our nation than just voting - work on all levels - personal, spiritual, self-educational, political, and social - the importance of voting cannot be underestimated, as the 2000 presidential elections demonstrated only too clearly. In that case, a small number of votes in one state was the only difference between two very different roads our nation might have traveled. (2016 would be another tremendous example!) Although apathy and abstention are wholly understandable in our modern society - the sense that our vote won’t change anything, anyway, so why bother? - it is not always true that our choice is as meaningless as picking between Tweedledum and Tweedledee. We can’t afford to take the chance not to vote! So while we try to do more, and to act on deeper and profounder levels - let’s not forget to register and to vote (even if it’s only as a holding action until we can get something else going), for "the lesser of two evils"! [For information on how and where to register to vote, you can contact the League of Women Voters, http://www.lwv.org . Don’t worry, they’re women, but they will talk to guys! They are a middle-of-the-road group which places a strong emphasis on encouraging citizen participation in democracy.]
November 11: Veterans’ Day, a day for honoring the sacrifice and service of military veterans. It is a major US holiday. This is the day, in 1918, on which Germany officially surrendered to the Allies and United States to end the First World War. It was celebrated as Armistice Day thereafter, but as other wars followed, and "the war to end wars" faded back into the pages of history as just "one more war" among many, the holiday was transformed from being a commemoration of the end of World War I and the veterans of that war, only, into a homage to the veterans of all wars, including World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War, and all conflicts to come.
November 12: This is the anniversary of the crash of Flight 587, a jetliner which was destroyed in a tragic accident shortly after take-off from New York City’s Kennedy Airport in 2001. The plane was filled with passengers of Dominican heritage, headed back to the Dominican Republic for the coming holiday season. For many Latins, the return home for the holidays is a very emotional and important time, a moment to take a break from the hardship of living in a new land which is often quite cold towards immigrants, and a chance to be reunited with friends and relatives who have been left behind, and to share memories, joys, and hopes for the future. The passengers often travel loaded down with presents for their loved ones: toys, appliances, clothes, and other items they have earned with their sweat in America, and want to bring back to their homeland to share. This flight was already tinged with this aura of excitement and generosity. But, unfortunately, a tragic mechanical failure caused the plane to plunge out of the sky before its journey had hardly begun, setting off waves of grief in both the Dominican Republic, and Dominican neighborhoods of New York. It is a day which many others will not take notice of, but which will live long in the memory of those who were personally touched by it, and by all those who are in any way connected with the Dominican community of New York City.
November 13: This is the anniversary of the eruption of the Nevado del Ruiz volcano, in 1985, which destroyed the Colombian town of Armero. It was a terrible tragedy which highlights not only the power of Nature, and the precariousness of our lives and creations (which should drive us to a deeper understanding of, and relationship, with life), but which also demonstrates the power of our will not to see (for this disaster could be seen coming, far in advance, but many blinded themselves to the inevitable so that they would not be forced to act; and the effort to avoid disaster was, therefore, utterly insufficient). Could this be a microcosmic representation of what is going on in our planet? For more on this, see "The Voice of Armero", in the "Weapons of Depth" section of this site.
November 22: The anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas, Texas, 1963. At that time, the country was still quite mesmerized by Kennedy, who projected an aura of youth, charm, energy, and idealism which was irresistible to many, and more than enough to compensate for any of his very human failings in their eyes. When his life was suddenly cut short that November morning, the nation momentarily felt as though the embodiment of its hopes and dreams had been struck down, and a collective period of grief and mourning ensued. For many, the death of President Kennedy represented a "loss of innocence" in America (or "waking up"); and also a challenge to carry on, holding high the light of idealism which he had lit in their hearts (even if one half of that light had really only been the glamour of his image). This is a day which will always retain its intensity in the consciousness of the generation that lost him.
November 22: Thanksgiving. This holiday, which always falls on a Thursday late in November, commemorates a celebration held by the Pilgrims (English colonists who came to America aboard the Mayflower in 1620), and the Indian friends who helped them to survive. Only about one half of the original Pilgrim expedition lasted through the first harsh winter which they spent in America, as freezing temperatures, hunger, and sickness took their toll - and those that did make it most probably owed their lives to friendly Native Americans such as Samoset of the Pemaquids, and Massasoit, Squanto and Hobomah of the Wampanoags, who took pity on the dying strangers, and willingly shared food with them from their tribal reserves. Then, when the spring came, these same kind-hearted Natives gave the Pilgrims seeds and showed them how to plant corn, how to fertilize their fields (with fish planted in the earth), where and how to catch fish, and other secrets of hunting, gathering, and cultivating: in a word, how to live in the new country. The original Thanksgiving was held in 1621, after the first successful Pilgrim harvest, as a celebration of survival, and the friendship which had made it possible. It was doubtless a beautiful moment, though history later spoiled it, for these same life-giving Wampanoags were eventually exterminated by English colonists in King Philip’s War (1675). In modern-day America, Thanksgiving is a time of family get-togethers, centered around a wonderful feast that traditionally features turkey with stuffing, mashed potatoes, squash, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie. (Be careful not to overeat, all it takes is one serving too many to turn this day of extraordinary pleasure into one of extraordinary misery! And by the way - one is supposed to pray and give thanks to God for what one has - just like the Pilgrims on that first Thanksgiving Day - before the gluttony begins!) - In New York City, we have the additional treat of Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade: a colorful parade, perfect for families with kids, which features giant balloons of well-known cartoon characters (such as Bullwinkle, Underdog, or Kermit the Frog, but the cast of characters changes with the years), and also a float introducing Macy's department store Santa Claus, whose presence ushers in the Christmas holiday season. Plus, the TV is overflowing with football games! What more could you ask for?
November 27: The anniversary of a surprise attack by General Custer on the peaceful Cheyenne camp of Chief Black Kettle (1868) on the Washita River (in Oklahoma). It was a snowy, cold winter dawn, when Custer and his troops attacked out of nowhere. Paradoxically, Black Kettle was the strongest voice for peace with the whites among the Cheyenne, at that time, and had heroically (or foolishly?) persisted in attempting to trust them in spite of the fact that an earlier camp of his had been destroyed, with tremendous brutality, by a roughshod unit of Colorado "Indian-fighters" in 1864. Men, women, and children lost their lives in Custer’s attack (over 100 Cheyenne were killed, in all, and over 50 women and children were taken prisoner). Among the dead were Black Kettle and his wife. For the Cheyenne, and those who honor their lives and culture, this must be a day of remembrance.
November 29: The anniversary of the Massacre of Sand Creek (1864). This is the occasion in which Black Kettle’s Cheyenne camp was destroyed the first time. This time, the assault, directed by Colonel Chivington, was launched against Black Ketttle’s camp at Sand Creek, in Colorado. The venerable Cheyenne chief had been assured by American officials that his peaceful camp would be respected and avoided as American troops hunted down other Native bands with which they were at war. To guarantee the safety of his people, Black Kettle even flew an American flag above his camp. However, Chivington, a former minister turned soldier, was a man on a mission, and his mission was to destroy Indians. For him, Black Kettle’s camp was a perfect target, and he attacked at dawn. At first, the Cheyennes gathered by the giant American flag they had raised above their camp, and they also raised up white flags, sure there had been some mistake. But Chivington’s men did not let that stop them. They opened fire and according to numerous witnesses (who later presented testimony to the US government), they deliberately hunted down and killed every man, woman, and child they could find, including those who were unarmed and those who tried to surrender. Afterwards, these same "soldiers" mutilated many of the bodies of the dead, in most shameful ways. This day is a sad reminder to all Americans that the development and growth of their country, for all its energy and brilliance, has had a dark side, which it is prudent never to forget, if we wish to build our tomorrow in a clean and moral way that future Americans can be proud of. It is also a day for the Cheyenne people to remember their losses, and to honor their dead.
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December 2: Chanukah, or the Festival of Lights, a major Jewish holiday whose exact date varies from year to year, begins at sundown on this day. It celebrates the ancient victory of Judah Maccabee against Syrian invaders, and his purification of the great Temple in Jerusalem (his reclaiming of the Hebrews' holiest site). On the day the temple's sacred lamp was lit, it contained only enough oil to give light for a single day, and yet, in spite of that, it continued to burn for eight - a miracle, and fitting culmination to the reclaiming of the Temple. As a result, Chanukah is celebrated for eight days. Each day, another candle of the Chanukah menorah is lit. (The Chanukah menorah is known as the Hanukiyah: it has 9 candleholders, 8 for the days, and one which is used to light the others.) Chanukah is a time for family and friends to get together, exchange gifts, enjoy good food, and share special times, as well as to preserve their spiritual and cultural heritage. Chanukah also represents the quality of resilience, and the idea that what is beautiful and holy is never lost as long as it treasured - for the mind that remembers and the heart that cherishes never lose the ability to recover what is precious.
December 6: On this day, in 1928, Colombian troops fired on a crowd of pacific demonstrators in Cienaga, Colombia, breaking the back of a politically-significant strike in the Santa Marta banana zone. At least 200 people were killed at the outset, and over 1,000 may have perished in the days of violence which followed. Although the Colombian army was responsible for the deaths, most Colombian observers believed that the violence was launched to defend the interests and profits of the American-owned United Fruit Company, which was faced with a major strike of banana workers backed by native Colombian planters. A common belief among Colombians regarding the massacre is that the Colombian government, at that time - especially the local government in the banana zone - was "in the pocket of the United Fruit Company, having essentially been "bought" and turned against its own people, as well as under pressure by the American government to put an end to the strike "or else." Although the positive contribution of American business to the world deserves to be recognized and respected, this is a day for remembering that the direct and indirect actions of US businesses in other lands have also, sometimes, caused damage to others, and created a negative image of America and Americans which does not do justice to who we aspire to be. It reminds us that we must never cease working to make sure that our actions remain true to our ideals; and that our government and our business reflect the best of who we are, and not the worst.
On a brighter note, December 6 is also the day established by the Catholic Church to celebrate the life of St. Nicholas, known for his generosity and compassion for the weak and poor. (See Dec. 25.)
December 7: "December 7, 1941, a day which will live in infamy…" On this day, the forces of Imperial Japan struck at the heart of the US Pacific fleet, stationed at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The US suffered heavy losses of ships and men in this bloody surprise attack, which finally drew America into World War II against the cruel and expansionist "Axis Powers" (Imperial Japan, Nazi Germany, and Fascist Italy). The war that ensued (1941-1945) was long and painful, but at the cost of many precious lives, it helped to lift a dark cloud from the face of the globe, and to give Humanity one more chance… What we do with that chance remains to be seen…
December 8: On this day, in 1980, British rock star John Lennon was shot and killed by a gunman in New York City in front of his apartment. The impact of his death was overpowering to many who had followed his career, beginning with the Beatles in the early 60s. It seemed, in some subtle but undeniable emotional way, to mark an end to "the 60s", a reminder that youth was gone, that time had passed, and that the "dream was over." Yet, in the intensity of the loss, something was resurrected. Beauty too great to be relinquished was re-recognized and embraced; refusing to die, it poured back into the heart with renewed force. Every year, on this day, crowds of aging "60s survivors" who remember, and new young fans who want to discover what they missed and to make it their own, flock to "Strawberry Fields" - a small memorial across the street from where Lennon was murdered in front of "the Dakota" apartment building (72nd St. and Central Park West). The shrine is about a block inside Central Park, and is nothing more than a small, open space left around a circle in the pavement, which contains the word "Imagine." Here, the crowds gather to leave candles, flowers, posters, and letters, as they listen to (and sing along with) songs by Lennon and the Beatles on radios and boom boxes (some people also bring guitars or tambourines). Many moods mingle, many emotions flow. Then, it is over for another year: ephemeral as the 60s’ moments of hope, stamped with vanished youth; as lasting as the heart that feels.
December 8 is also the Day of the Immaculate Conception, a Catholic holiday which honors Mary, the Mother of Jesus. The purpose of the day is not to celebrate the belief that Mary conceived Jesus without losing her virginity (Virgin Birth), as the result of a miracle (Jesus was said to be a "divine gift" placed into her womb by God, not the product of ordinary human forms of procreation); rather, this day is meant to celebrate the "immaculate conception" of Mary, herself, meaning that she was born pure and faultless, without the stain of "original sin" which was said to contaminate all other human beings since Adam and Eve first sinned in the Garden of Eden, by defying God, and eating forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. (That state of sin was believed to have been inherited by all of their descendants - which, of course, in the Bible’s eyes, meant the entire human race.) Controversial theology aside, it is a day for honoring Mother Mary, and the divine mother figure archetype of which she is a powerful example.
December 12: The fiesta of the Virgen de Guadalupe in Mexico, a day for honoring the "national Virgin" of Mexico, by visiting her shrine if possible. Festivities of many kinds and a fair-like atmosphere coexist with the adoration of this very important figure in Mexico’s spiritual belief-system. After the conquest of the Aztec Empire by Spaniards in the 16th Century, the spiritual universe of the Native American survivors was left in a state of confusion, as the "inability" of their Gods to protect them, powerful efforts by Spanish priests to convert them to Christianity and to persecute those who clung to old ways, and yet, persisting loyalty to many elements of their spiritual past, left their hearts in a state of turmoil. In these days, Juan Diego, a poor Mexican peasant who had converted to Christianity, passed by Tepeyac Hill, where an Aztec shrine to Tonantzin, Goddess of Earth and Corn (the "little mother") had once stood. There, he said, a luminous woman appeared to him - the Mother of Jesus, but in the form of an Indian. She asked him to have a shrine built for her on that same hill, so that she could be near her (Mexican) people, and love and protect them always. The humble Native American peasant had some difficulty in convincing the Spanish bishop that his vision was real, but after a miracle occurred - roses bloomed on Tepeyac Hill, and an image of the Virgin appeared inside Juan Diego’s tilma (a cape-like garment worn by Native American men) - the bishop was finally convinced, and construction on the Basilica of the Virgen de Guadalupe was begun. For many Aztecs of the time, the appearance of the Virgen on Tepeyac Hill, in native form, was a kind of rebirth of Tonantzin - a chameleon-like shift of the ancient Aztec goddess into a new form that they could worship without being persecuted. After a long night of feeling abandoned by their Gods, orphans of the Universe - suddenly, Tonantzin had come back in a new form, to let them know that she still loved them and could still help them. At the same time, the Catholic Virgin Mary’s appearance as a Mexican, rather than a Spaniard, seemed to represent some kind of divine defection from the power and agenda of the Spaniards. No longer a tool of conquerors, the Virgin had stepped out of her misuse to show the world that she was on the side of the poor and the wounded, on the side of justice, on the side of the Indians, and not the cruel ones who pretended to represent her. This made it easier for the Aztec survivors of the Conquest to worship her, and through her, to enter into the Catholic faith. Through this act of "syncretism" (mixing/fusion), Christianity was finally able to "capture" the hearts of Native Americans in Mexico, while Native Americans were able to "personalize" and, to some extent, reshape the religion of the conquerors to better suit their own needs. December 12 is the anniversary of the day on which the Virgen made her final appearance to Juan Diego (1531). To modern-day Mexicans, she represents an infinite power of love and understanding, the loyalty and tenderness of the best of mothers, an ever-present solace for those who are suffering, for those who are poor, and for those who the world overlooks or despises. She is Hope itself, in a form that no wounded heart will fail to recognize...
December 15: On this day, in 1890, the great Hunkpapa Lakota chief, Sitting Bull, was assassinated by "Indian police" sent to arrest him by US authorities. Although he had, by now, and for many yeas, been confined to a reservation, his influence, as a proud and stubborn patriot of old ways who refused to "sell out", was still greatly feared. At this time, the Ghost Dance phenomenon (see December 29) had taken hold of the Great Plains, and the government was on edge that this new millenarian movement, if it stirred up enough hostility and hope among the downtrodden Natives, and translated into a new uprising, might find a potent and dangerous leader in the old, unhumbled chief ("victor of the Little Big Horn", see June 25). It is now quite clear that government fears were greatly exaggerated; but in those days, hysteria was rampant, and unclear perceptions ruled the moment. Sitting Bull was murdered in the cold December dawn, "resisting arrest", which was really only a way of trying to preserve his dignity. Although his life was lost on that bitter day, his lesson of courage and his unending struggle not to be broken and absorbed by the ways of his "conquerors", lives on, an enduring reminder of the power of human dignity.
December 17: On this day, in 1903, the Wright Brothers made the first successful flight of an aircraft at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Wilbur and Orville Wright made history. Less known is the contribution of Charlie Taylor, the mechanic who successfully built an engine powerful enough to lift the flying machine off the ground, yet light enough to be borne in flight. It is a day for celebrating man’s genius - his technical imagination and ability, his daring to try new things and risk life itself in order to achieve greatness; his appetite to discover, explore, solve, and know. It is also a day to remember that our collective brilliance needs deep moral roots in order not to capsize into disaster, for this magnificent and bold invention which has given so much, and offered new opportunities to bring the world closer together, has also been used to sow grief throughout the world, in the form of aerial warfare. Guernica Rotterdam, Dresden, Hiroshima… the names of ruined towns and cities remind us that genius needs heart to be complete. Let us invent and dare, travel over the seas and fly through the air, unravel new paths in all fields and dimensions of life, yet never lose sight of the simple fact that without compassion and love, we are nothing.
December 21: Anniversary of the "Fetterman Massacre", or the "Battle of the Hundred Slain" (1866) as it was known to Native Americans. The US army had recently built Fort Phil Kearney in Wyoming, as part of a move to consolidate the Bozeman Trail, an important pathway for white settlers traveling from Fort Laramie (Wyoming) into the mining country of Montana and Idaho. Unfortunately, the trail ran through the cherished hunting grounds of the Lakota (Sioux) and other native peoples of the Great Plains. A large band of Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho warriors under the leadership of Oglala Lakota chief Red Cloud, decided to pressure the soldiers to leave the fort, and began a steady campaign of ambushes and harassment, attacking parties of woodcutters and travelers to and from the fort in an effort to isolate it and to make its continued occupation untenable. On December 21, Captain Fetterman, an arrogant soldier who had once boasted that with 100 men he could ride through the entire Sioux nation, was lured out of the fort by an Indian attack against a party of woodcutters working nearby. As Captain Fetterman "came to the rescue", a small band of Indian decoys, including the young Crazy Horse (Oglala Sioux), made themselves visible, and enticed him to pursue them farther and farther away from the fort, until they at last led him into a well-laid trap at Peno Creek. There, Fetterman and his entire company of 81 men were killed. This victory, a tactical "masterpiece" by Red Cloud, who could not defeat the soldiers while they were in their fort, and so devised a way to draw them out of the fort to a place where he could beat them, convinced the US government that the cost of maintaining the Bozeman trail was too high. The trail was, therefore, "closed", and Fort Phil Kearney abandoned. For Native Americans, this was a great, if short-lived, triumph. It was also an important step in the development of Crazy Horse, who would one day come to be the preeminent war-leader of the Oglala Lakota.
December 21: The Winter Solstice. The shortest day of the year. On this day, the sun seems to have little desire to stay, and nightfall arrives earlier than ever. It is the official onset of winter, and in northern latitudes, our harshest weather is just around the corner (typically, January and February).
December 24 & 25: Christmas Eve, and Christmas Day. In other words: CHRISTMAS. A holiday marking the birth of Jesus Christ, originally one of great religious significance centered around "Baby Jesus", the Christian Savior in his first, vulnerable, yet holy, moment as an infant; and the reign of love, joy and brotherhood he came into the world to spread. According to tradition, he was born of humble parents, Joseph and Mary, in a stable in Bethlehem, in a time of fear and persecution, yet was destined to bring a message of overwhelming power and hope to the world. From early times, the holiday seemed to be associated with joyful gift-giving, which could be linked to the tradition of the 3 Magi, or Wisemen from the East, who followed the Star of Bethlehem to bring presents to the newborn infant who they believed was destined to bring forth a new reign of light upon the earth; or, alternately, the gift-giving could be traced back to the fusion of the ancient Roman holiday of the Saturnalia with the Christian holiday marking the birth of Christ. (The Saturnalia was a pagan holiday in honor of the Roman God Saturn, and actually lasted from mid-December until the First of January. It was characterized by masquerades and dances in the streets, banquets, festivities of all kinds, and exchanges of gifts, and many historians believe that as Christianity gained power in Rome, it preserved some elements of the Saturnalia in its own celebration of Christ’s birth, while eliminating others considered too sensual or turbulent.) In many countries today, Baby Jesus remains the focus of the Christmas holiday (along with gift-giving, and family gatherings). But in others, including the US, the far more secular and jovial figure of Santa Claus has come into the foreground, as the face of Christmas. Santa seems to be a derivative of an ancient priest, St. Nicholas, who was born in Asia Minor in 280 AD, and who became an object of veneration throughout the Christian world after his death. During his own lifetime, it was said he put into practice the teachings of Christ, by giving away most of the considerable amount of wealth he had been born with, passing it on to the unfortunate and needy. It is said that he did not like to be seen as he gave away gold and other presents, perhaps because he wished to do good deeds for their own sake, and not to win acclaim, or make a public show of his generosity. Whatever the case, his mysterious and unseen nighttime visits became the model for our present-day Santa Claus (Sinter Klass is a Dutch way of saying Saint Nicholas). As time went on, the legend of Santa Claus became more and more embellished by the imagination of various authors, whose visions impacted upon, and were finally absorbed by, popular culture; and St. Nick, aka Santa Claus, drifted farther away from the original human source of its inspiration, until we were left with a corpulent, jolly figure with a long white beard, elfin helpers, and a sled full of toys, drawn by flying reindeer. Quite charming, whatever his cultural journey to get here! As for holiday wreaths and trees, it seems that wreaths were common during the Roman Saturnalia; and some experts believe that the custom of putting up Christmas trees may have gained significant impetus after Prince Albert, the husband of England’s Queen Victoria, erected and decorated a gigantic tree in Windsor Castle, creating an effect which others wanted to imitate. (Here, in New York City, a gigantic tree is erected, and lit, every Christmas time, at Rockefeller Center.) Christmas is a holiday with many different meanings for different people, and it also has many faces. While some people still preserve its spiritual heart, by remembering Jesus and the message of love and peace he tried to bring to the world, others think of Santa Claus, and the fairy-tale-like aura which he brings to the day. While Santa may have carried many of us away from the original meaning of Christmas, he still radiates a sense of joy and mystery which is capable of filling a child’s world with utter magic, at the same time as it teaches us all the beauty of generosity. Some wonderful tales which remind us of the beauty of the Christmas spirit are Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Beautiful songs also find their way to us, inspired by this theme: "Joy to the world, the newborn king", "Silent night, holy night…", "I’m dreaming of a white Christmas", "Feliz Navidad, Feliz Navidad…" "O Tannenbabum, O Tannenbaum…", yes, even "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer"; and U2, wondering what has happened to the spirit of Christmas, which we fail to live by: "You hear it every Christmas time, but hope and history won’t rhyme, so what’s it worth? - This ‘peace on earth.’" Consumerist, spiritual, real, fake, hypocritical, sincere? Christmas in modern times can be all of the above, and yet, for the moments of hope - illusions or not - which it gives to us - and for those sometimes rare moments of family togetherness, harmony, friendship, and sharing which it can bless our lives with, it is surely worth any of the ambivalence. For the experience of just one beautiful Christmas can change our lives forever, by giving us a vision to aim for for the rest of our lives. One more important note: in many countries, the gift-giving takes place on Christmas Eve, while in the US, it tends to take place on Christmas Day, itself. Don’t get your days or cultures mixed up! And: MERRY CHRISTMAS!
December 26 - January 1: Kwanzaa. An African-American holiday set aside for honoring one’s African heritage in a family setting. The holiday was founded in the 1960s by African-American activist Ron Karenga, who in those days felt that Christmas was a celebration reflecting the values and culture of the dominant white society which did not properly recognize or esteem the legacy and contributions of Africa. In a time of social ferment and struggle, Karenga realized the psychological importance of holidays as means of reinforcing and constructing the reality of the self, by choosing what to cherish and what to aspire to. Aware that Christianity had, itself, grown by injecting its own holidays (which were once new) into the framework of more ancient pagan holidays, he chose to inject Kwanzaa into the middle of the Christmas season, hoping to utilize the family gatherings and holiday spirit which already defined that period, to promote a new celebration of black consciousness and pride. Kwanzaa, itself, is not an original African celebration, but rather, a set of rituals and activities inspired by African culture, filtered through the vision of Karenga, and developed in the USA. Critics condemn it for being an "invented holiday" and "inauthentic", but the truth of the matter is that it is a sincere and genuine effort to keep memories and traditions of Africa alive in a new land, and to preserve self-respect and a faith in one’s own possibilities, by honoring the glory, dignity, and heart of a world that was taken away. It is, in some ways, the undoing of a theft and the recovery of a precious and empowering identity. Kwanzaa is distinguished by the use of the kinara, a candle-holder which holds seven candles (one for each day); by the offering of libations, and the display of fresh fruits and African art; and by reflection upon the values and traditions of Africa, which are shared with the young, and the retelling of stories. As Kwanzaa has grown over time, it is no longer viewed as a substitute for Christmas, but as a parallel holiday, which deepens Christmas time with a celebration of one’s personal and ethnic roots.
December 29: The anniversary of Wounded Knee, 1890, in which a camp of Lakota men, women and children under the leadership of Chief Big Foot was massacred by the US army in a bloody, one-sided slaughter. At that time, the Lakota and other Indians of the Great Plains were already defeated and living on reservations (most of them had already been interned by 1877); but in 1890, an inspiring prophet (Wovoka) rose up among the Paiute of the Southwest, speaking on behalf of all Indians, regardless of tribe. He was believed by many to be the incarnation of Jesus Christ, who had returned to the earth in the form of an Indian, since the whites, who he had come to first, had crucified him. According to Wovoka, a great millenarian change was about to take place on the earth. A great whirlwind would come in the spring of 1891, covering over the earth with new earth, and burying the old, corrupt, hypocritical, unjust world under a righteous and beautiful new one. The buffalo would return, and the dead would be reunited with the living. Freedom and happiness would blossom everywhere, as the old ways were restored, and shattered families were put back together. According to Wovoka, all the Indians had to do to make it into this coming paradise was to believe in it, and to participate in a special ceremonial dance, known as the Ghost Dance, which would spiritually prepare them so that when the cleansing cataclysm came, they would be able to rise above it (light as a feather) until the old world had been covered over and remade. Although Wovoka’s concept was completely pacific, relying upon divine justice to overcome the power of the whites and destroy their world through a miracle, many white settlers and officials on the Great Plains panicked as more and more Indians began to gather together to dance this dance of survival and resurrection. For the Natives, it was a way of recovering hope, and battling against the despair and depression of having had their whole universe taken away from them - their freedom, pride, and ways of life, as they were locked up on the reservation; but to the whites, it was a terrifying sign of discontent - of hearts and minds not yet fully pulverized - and they feared that the Ghost Dance might galvanize the various tribes touched by it into some kind of violent uprising. To deny any such uprising the possibility of a great and experienced leader, the government moved in to arrest Sitting Bull, even though he was not a central figure in the Ghost Dance movement. When he was killed (December 15), many Lakotas fled the reservations to escape the possibility of meeting a similar fate - which, in turn, frightened the government even more. Big Foot and his band were on their way to the Pine Ridge Reservation to seek the protection of Red Cloud, the old Oglala Lakota chief who for years had struggled to be "practical", accepting the superior power of the whites and the inevitability of life on the reservation, while maintaining compassion for his people, and trying to represent their needs as beast as he could to the world of the whites. He was the right man to go to, but Big Foot never made it. Instead, his band was surrounded by the 7th Cavalry, and ordered to disarm. At dawn on the 29th, as the process was ending, an incident occurred which triggered the US troops to open fire and begin a ruthless slaughter of the warriors who had just laid down their arms. As many as 300 Native Americans, including many women and children, were cut down by rifle fire and giant Hotchkiss guns. In this way, the desperate dream of freedom represented by the Ghost Dance was destroyed, and the devastating reality of defeat and captivity brought home more than ever. As Black Elk, an Oglala medicine man who witnessed the aftermath of this massacre, and fought for some time afterwards, said: "I did not know then how much was ended. When I look back now from this high hill of my old age, I can still see the butchered women and children lying heaped and scattered all along the crooked gulch as plain as when I saw them with eyes still young. And I can see that something else died there in the bloody mud, and was buried in the blizzard. A people’s dream died there. It was a beautiful dream. [Now]…the nation’s hoop is broken and scattered. There is no center any longer, and the sacred tree is dead." (Black Elk Speaks, John Neihardt, p.230.) But dreams so beautiful and people so powerful do not die for long. Death is as transitory as life, and what one generation gave its life for, others may yet be able to live. This is a day for honoring the dead, and for also honoring the beauty that our hearts are able to grasp, and recommitting ourselves to it. There is still time to "make the earth over" if we will only allow ourselves to see the need for it, and allow ourselves to believe it is possible…
December 31: New Year’s Eve. Back to January! The wheel has nearly come round, again. Don’t drink and drive! God Bless You, and may you and all your loved ones have a beautiful new year…
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[Remember - the dates commemorated in this calendar reflect my own, sometimes idiosyncratic choices. To find out a little bit of the history that resides in every day, from a less detailed, but far more thorough perspective, see http://www.scopesys.com/anyday/ ] Once again: Peace & God Bless!
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