Archive for category religious holidays

Kwanzaa: My kujichagulia

Habari gani?

This week is Kwanzaa, the often-mentioned but mostly-mysterious major December holiday. I’ve always been vaguely aware that Kwanzaa is about Pan-African identity. But what it’s about more specifically and how to celebrate it? No idea.

The Official Kwanzaa Web Site gives a pretty good picture of what this week is all about. Created in 1966 by an American professor, Kwanzaa includes the celebration of seven values, or principles. You focus on one principle every day through New Year’s Day, which is a time to reflect and “answer soberly and humbly the three Kawaida questions: Who am I; am I really who I say I am; and am I all I ought to be?”

Today is the second day of Kwanzaa, and the value of the day is kujichagulia (koo-jee-chah-GOO-lee-ah), or self-determination. The Nguzo Saba, the seven principles of Kwanzaa, says this value is about defining ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves and speak for ourselves.

This sounds absolutely perfect for me today. Two of my college roommates are visiting tonight. Both are very independent, intelligent women who have gone on to create adventures and experiences for themselves. One prowls the swamps and forests of the Southeast for the U.S. Forestry Service. The other spent a year in Thailand as a teacher and is probably Kenya-bound in the spring.

I admire both of them immensely, but I have a really hard time not feeling twinges of jealousy. It’s not a competitive feeling so much as remembering that I had hoped to travel or do something exciting after graduation. Instead, I took a very conservative path. I accepted a modest job at the university I graduated from, which isn’t all that far from where I grew up. Other than a brief trip to South Africa in college, I’ve never been abroad, though I have traveled a lot domestically with my family and G.

While I have no immediate plans to leave my job or anything like that, eHow suggests using kujichagulia to make some real goals for yourself, kind of like life-long New Year’s resolutions. I figure it can’t hurt to at least try to articulate what I think I want so I can start trying to make some of it happen. If nothing else, it’ll give me something to say when my roommates ask what I’m doing. I’d prefer not to say I’m doing the exact same thing I was last year!

Ok, so using eHow’s list of of strategies as a model, here goes: Read the rest of this entry »



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Holiday astronomy: From Saturn to the moon to the Star of Bethlehem

The last week and a half have absolutely flown by. The lack of posts is a direct result of my solid immersion in Christmas happenings. My brother and his new girlfriend arrived on the 17th, which was also the first day of Saturnalia, the ancient Roman festival known for its (pretend) reversal of social roles between masters and servants.

It was ironic; until now, it was always me, the older sister, who was bringing a partner home. And it was always a special occasion when I came home from college. This time, though, roles were definitely reversed. Now, I’m essentially the child “still at home” since I live near my parents and my brother traveled from a time zone away for the first time in several months. And my relationship isn’t the new shiny thing anymore. I’m not the one more or less breaking ground. His and my paths are so distinct they’re impossible to compare. I think this is a good thing–it’s just interesting how my brother’s and my roles in the family have changed, and those roles don’t “switch back” after a week.

Anyway, I was hoping to attend some winter solstice celebrations in Madison, as Unitarians are an excellent source for this kind of thing and we have a healthy population of them. But most of the celebrations happened the Friday evening before the Tuesday solstice, and I was at my parents’ place. I was then hoping to go to the lunar eclipse party the night of the 20th at the UW Space Place. The eclipse was supposed to be the only one visible this year and since it was happening on the winter solstice, it was the northernmost lunar eclipse possible–an event that apparently hasn’t happened (or been visible?) in 456 years. I was pretty stoked for this, but unfortunately, Mother Earth put the kibash on my solstice plans. It was super cloudy in anticipation of snow the next day, and the party was canceled since visibility was essentially zero.

I struck out on some of the biggest holidays of the winter season last week, but I certainly made up for it during the King Kong of holidays in the U.S. Having my brother home from the Navy was a pretty big deal. We cut down a Christmas tree the day after P got here, and we all scrambled for last-minute presents. Mom busted out a serious variety of treats and meals. We spent Christmas Eve with the family of one of my brother’s friends, which was interesting. Spending such a family-oriented day on someone else’s turf wouldn’t have been my choice, but it worked out, and then we went to a church service with my brother in full dress blues. Christmas Day was pretty relaxed; my uncle came down and we pretty much spent the day eating, opening gifts, eating again, watching some TV and eating one more time. Can’t complain!

But Christmas 2010 is now another Christmas past, and as everyone else recovers from the holidaze (the chaos between Thanksgiving and Christmas), I’m gathering my endurance for the ever on-going quest for daily holidays.

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Bodhi Day

I’ve been fascinated with Buddhism for a long time, since a really brief stint as a communications intern at a local temple. The Dalai Lama makes surprisingly regular visits to Madison, and I’ve seen him speak. I also just really like the central themes of Buddhism, like compassion and balance. However, I really don’t know that much about the specifics of the philsophy or much about the Buddha himself.

So there was no question I was jumping on the Bodhi bandwagon today. Bodhi Day celebrates the Buddha’s enlightenment. After a hard stretch of intense meditation and wrestling off mental demons while sitting under a fig tree, the Buddha realized the nature of suffering and experienced his awakening, or bodhi. The tree, called the Bodhi Tree, under which this all occurred is now considered a very sacred site in India.

Celebrating Bodhi Day is a big deal for some Buddhists. A lot of the associated activities look similar to typical Christmas doings: on Bodhi Day, you can hang lights, decorate a ficus tree, or even make tree-shaped cookies. Some also light a candle on Bodhi Day that remains lit for 30 days.

Before the Buddha sat down under the Bodhi Tree, he was offered rice and milk by a servant girl, Sujata. He ate the meal to gain strength before meditation, so it’s traditional to eat a meal, typically breakfast, of rice and milk on Bodhi Day.

The Buddha by PBSMy goal today was to learn something about the story of Buddha. So I lit a whole mess of candles, settled in with a bowl of rice and glass of milk, and turned on Netflix. I spent the evening watching The Buddha, a PBS documentary that premiered last April. It was really informative and chronologically followed the Buddha’s life from his days as Prince Siddartha to his renunciation of palace life and days of spiritual searching, to his enlightenment and teaching. It’s narrated by Richard Gere, who I certainly don’t mind listening to for two hours, and the Dalai Lama makes several appearances. The animated portions aren’t my favorite, but the storytelling is strong and the Buddhists who are featured do a really great job of explaining their philosophy for non-Buddhists.

Learning about different religions is really fascinating to me, which is convenient since it’s Spiritual Literacy Month. G gave me one of the Dalai Lama’s books awhile back, and cracking it open by candlelight on Bodhi Day seems like the right way to end the night.

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All Saints’ Day

Halloween 2009 was terrible. And considering Halloween in Madison, Wisconsin, is often known as one of the best Halloween party towns in the country, well, you know I messed up. My costume was great, don’t get me wrong. I was Crazy Cat Lady with poofy hair and a tan jacket appliquéd with cats and butterflies. I tied a grand total of five stuffed cats on various body parts and topped off the look with orange sunglasses that matched orange capri pants tucked into knee-high yellow leather boots. So I looked great. Exactly as I was supposed to in order to properly channel the fugliness of a Cat Lady.

However, in Madison, females lean more toward Sexy Bee and Slutty Nun. So I just looked homeless rather than ready for a night on the town–a misfire I should have but did not anticipate.

Okay, an ugly costume wouldn’t have been a guaranteed death knell except for the tragic fact that I spent the night at a house party with much younger people, therefore looking especially homeless and untouchable. This one wasn’t totally my fault. I thought I would know more people at this particular party. Wrong. My group, which included college seniors, graduate students and me, a recent grad, ended up spending forever at a  party with lots of what turned out to be freshman and sophomore Sexy Bees and Dick in a Boxes. Worst of all, the house owners, who are actually nice guys who just happen to have a preppy web of acquaintances, opted for the cheapest beer available for their kegs. Milwaukee’s Best. Beast.

My Halloween spirit, which is usually insatiable, deflated faster than a bee sting after an EpiPen injection. I came home brooding about how to better channel the world of the dead before the weekend’s end, and since slumming with demons didn’t do it, I opted to head to church.

I live a couple of blocks from the historic First Unitarian Society, which has a historic meeting house designed by that Midwestern god Frank Lloyd Wright. Seriously, people in Wisconsin lose their minds over FLW stuff, so I’ve been aware of the Unitarian church for years, but as a good little Lutheran, I’d never been.

All Saints’ Day, which you may or may not know, is a Catholic holiday originally celebrated in May. The spring celebration was based on the ancient Roman Festival of the Lemures, which involved ceremonies to exorcise the malevolent spirits of the dead from homes. (Thank you, Wikipedia.)

The festival was tweaked to fit Christianity when Pope Boniface IV dedicated the Pantheon to the Virgin Mary and to all the saints during the festival in 609 or 610. Another pope, Gregory III, shifted All Saints’ Day to November during the 700s in order to piggyback on the Celtic harvest and spiritual festival of Samhain. This piggy backing was supposed to eventually result in the celebration of only All Saints’ Day, but Samhain persisted, evolving into All Hallow’s Eve, and of course, Halloween. (Wikipedia strikes again.)

All Saints’ Day, which commemorates all recognized saints and those who have made it through the Pearly Gates, has remained a relatively small-scale religious holiday. I’m not Catholic and a Catholic church is not within a couple of blocks, so First Unitarian Society became the church of choice for me to celebrate All Saints’ this morning.

Again, I was raised Lutheran, though I’ve totally lapsed both in practice and in some ways, beliefs. So the Unitarian Univeralist environment was really different for me–no crosses on the walls, no Bibles in the worship area. Instead, the minister and associate ministers just talked about death.

Heaven and the afterlife were not the emphases of the service. Instead, a minister spoke to children about how heaven may or may not exist and either way, it is unknowable. So perhaps the better thing to keep in mind when a pet or relative dies is how they become a part of the Earth, helping to make the flowers grow.

The de-emphasis on fate and God as a part of death and the added emphasis on personal agency in death (the UU denomination is the only to have openly advocated for death with dignity, according to today’s minister) and the return-to-nature idea is an interesting twist on today’s holiday. As the handy little pamphlet “Who We Are: Unitarian Universalists” says: “In the end religious authority lies not in a book, person, or institution, but in ourselves.” So today I’m my own saint, and I get to celebrate being right where I am on this planet rather than worry too much about the unknowable heaven.

It was relieving, after last night’s party fail, to have someone say more or less that it’s okay to opt out of another, much more cosmic, popularity contest. After all, St. Peter’s book is probably the ultimate guest list.

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