05 April 2010 Published in Celebrations & Festivals

It's curious how holidays tend to change and sometimes gradually merge over time. This is perhaps especially true of the spring observances of Arbor Day, Earth Day, and May Day. Arbor Day: April 20

Celebration of a special day to plant trees is recognized in most states as Arbor Day. The first formal observance was in Nebraska, promoted by J. Sterling Morton, in April 1872. April 22, Morton's birthday, was later chosen as the date there. The idea quickly spread to other states, and now is observed in some way in all states. The date varies, though it is most commonly in April.

Most of our holidays look to the past, noting events and persons in our history. Arbor Day was the first holiday that looked instead to the future. By planting a tree, one hopes to leave its shade as a legacy for future generations.

Earth Day: April 22

The environmental movement of the late 1960s and 1970s began the observance of Earth Day. Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin was a principal organizer of the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970. This largely grassroots-organized event brought the participation of about 20 million Americans with various fairs, educational forums, and clean up activities, largely at colleges and high schools. The date was chosen as being late during the spring at a time when universities were not on break, and it did not interfere with Easter or Passover. By 2007, nearly a billion people around the world were thought to participate in various Earth Day activities at colleges, universities, schools, libraries, museums, and parks.

These observances have spread environmental awareness throughout much of society. The early Earth Day celebrations were instrumental in gathering support for landmark environmental legislation that followed in the 1970s. It remains popular and important today as a means of promoting environmental issues with clean-ups, educational forums, and other events.

Earth Day is popular with its many educational seminars on recycling, reducing waste, the promotion of bicycle riding and mass transit, and other related issues. This day is generally much more widely recognized than Arbor Day, except perhaps in Nebraska where Arbor Day began.

May Day: May 1

There is a green side and a red side May Day. The green side is an ancient one of celebrating the coming summer, warmer weather, flowers, dancing around the Maypole, and celebrating fertility. The red side relates to its close association with labor history of late 19th century America which evolved into an international day of the worker.

May Day's green side with the Maypole and flower festivals is not a popular holiday in the U.S. at the present time. Many of the ancient customs, such as bonfires, dancing around a garland decorated Maypole, and May baskets did not transplant well into North America, being perceived by some as pagan in origin. Some of these traditions have been revived with the New Age Movement of the 1970s, making it slightly more popular today than perhaps fifty years ago. However, its observance is still far from common in most of the U.S.

There is also the red side of May Day associated with the often-neglected history of the American labor movement. In 1886 Chicago, workers marched in support of an 8-hour workday. While this was largely non-violent, demonstrations at a strike a few days later led to bloodshed. A mass meeting at Haymarket Square a few days later led to more bloodshed, with several unionists and policemen killed. This became known as the Haymarket Riots. There was an unfair trial and subsequent execution of several anarchists. Within a few years, May 1 was celebrated in many countries as an International Worker's Day. This tradition continues today.

It was never very popular here due to the strong anti-socialist, anti-labor stance of the governmental and business Establishment. The active antagonism towards May Day being celebrated as Labor Day in the U.S. was confirmed with the 1894 declaration of the first Monday in September as Labor Day. This was done as an official response to the 1894 May Day "March on Washington" by several hundred disgruntled unemployed. In the 1920s, this bias was further reinforced with the development of "Americanization Day." This evolved into Loyalty Day over the next two decades. May 1 was also proclaimed as Law Day in the 1960s, further confusing the public. While a formal proclamation day, Law Day has never been really popular with the American public.

The Spring Festival

Because of their close proximity in date, many activities related to the environment and spring clean ups are merged together. These activities are often on a weekend, from mid-April to the first weekend in May. This avoids a direct conflict Mother's Day, the second Sunday in May, which retains its nature as a very popular day all its own.

When combined, Arbor Day, Earth Day, and May Day have a stronger collective impact on recognizing spring than any of them achieved separately. The increasing popularity of clean-ups reveals a much greater awareness and concern with environmental issues than was evident just a few decades ago. Celebration of spring, with public cleaning of parks and highways and flower festivals is a fusion of these three days. While particular events may honor one of these three days, in the collective consciousness it is a time of environmental spring festival.

Sources:

Krythe, Maymie R. All About American Holidays. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1962.

Matthews, Jon. The Summer Solstice: Celebrating the Journey of the Sun from May Day to Harvest. Wheaton, Illinois: Quest Books, Theosophical Publishing House, 2002.

Myers, Robert J. (with the Editors of Hallmark Cards). Celebrations: The Complete Book of American Holidays. Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company, 1972.

Schauffler, Robert Haven, ed., Arbor Day, New York: Moffat, Yard and Company, 1909, (1990 reprint).

18 February 2010 Published in Star Gazing

Spring is a season of nature reawakening from winter's long dormancy. By the modern calendar, it begins with the vernal equinox (about March 20). This is the day when the sun's vertical rays cross the equator, and daylight / night time hours around the world are theoretically about equal. Daylight hours continue to increase by about three to five minutes a day, reaching a peak of daylight with the summer solstice of about June 21.

It is not coincidental that Easter and the equinox are closely associated. Keeping the vernal equinox stable around March 20 on the calendar was a major goal of Gregorian reform of the calendar in the 16th century. For Christians, the celebration of Easter, between March 22 and April 25, is an affirmation that spring is finally here. Others would give that distinction to St. Patrick's Day of March 17. This is the largely secularized Saints Day where green symbolizes the shamrock, Ireland, and spring,often accompanied by parades, music, and frequently, by over indulgence in green beer.

11 May 2010 Published in Star Gazing

A Beginner's Guide to the Night Sky

Four hundred years ago, Galileo began studying the night sky with the early telescope, beginning a scientific revolution. Prior to that, watching the night skies had been with the naked eye, without magnification. Stars, the moon, comets, meteors, and the five planets that the ancients knew as the "wanderers" can all be observed in this manner. One may be fortunate enough to live in a rural area, or perhaps in an urban neighborhood devoid of significant light pollution, as is my good fortune. Viewing the sky from a park or waterfront, or rural area outside the city can limit this problem that adversely affects nighttime observations in most urban areas.

What follows is a brief survey of what is seen in the night sky without magnification with a little time and patient effort.

The Moon

One quickly notices the constantly changing moon. The full moon rises about local sunset. Then each evening, it rises later, as it wanes to last quarter and new moon (when it is not visible). Then the first crescent is seen in the east around sunrise, waxing over two weeks to full moon again. A full cycle takes about 29.5 days, about a week for each quarter. This is the lunar month, the basis for the first calendars. Cycles of the waxing and waning moon have influenced agricultural planting and harvesting schedules for millennia. Most urban residents have lost sensitivity to this ever-changing natural cycle that dominates the night skies.

A lunar eclipse occurs when the Earth is aligned between the sun and the moon. The full moon changes from a bright yellow-white orb to a dull, blood red or orange. An eclipse is partial or complete, lasting a few minutes to several hours. From any given location, this is visible every few years. The next full lunar eclipse visible from eastern North America occurs December 21, 2010.

The Stars and Constellations

In the night sky, there are thousands of visible stars. Since ancient times, man has connected the dots of stars to form shapes recognized as animals or mythological creatures. These are the constellations, an important foundation for mythology, astronomy, and astrology. In the middle latitudes, most constellations change seasonally, while some are visible year round.

The outer ladle of the easily seen Big Dipper (Ursa Major) points to the handle of the Little Dipper (Ursa Minor). This star is Polaris, or the North Star. One's latitude and the angle at which it is seen are the same. The other stars and constellations appear to rotate around Polaris during the night.

Besides the signs of the Zodiac, and the Dippers, other well-known northern hemisphere constellations include Orion, Cassiopeia, and Cygnus (the Swan).

The Planets

The ancients recognized that certain "stars" were different. They moved in their relationship to the other stars, rather than appearing stationary. Much brighter than stars, they disappeared for days or months at a time. These were the five "wanderers," or planets.

Venus and Mercury are visible only briefly before sunrise or after sunset. Their orbits pass between Earth and the Sun, and they are known as the inner planets. They are commonly called morning or evening stars. Venus, white to blue, is often the brightest object in the sky, while Mercury is much dimmer and less often seen. A conjunction of Venus and Mercury in early April 2010 made Mercury much easier to observe than usual.

In contrast, the outer planets of Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn might be seen most of the night during much of the year. Mars usually has a reddish-orange tinge. These outer planets are often are not visible for months at a time.

Comets and Meteors

The night sky has other objects besides stars and planets that are more irregular and unusual. Comets wander though the solar system in a large elliptical orbit around the sun. One orbit may take decades or centuries. They usually have a tail of cosmic dust that becomes brighter as it comes closer to the sun.

Meteors are small fragments of asteroids or remnants from a comet's tail. While meteors may be seen individually any time of year, they are more common as meteor showers with sometimes a dozen or more meteors seen per hour. These happen seasonally as the earth travels through the path of a comet's tail, with small fragments burning up in the earth's atmosphere. Meteors can emit a bright streak of light across 5 to 50 degrees arc of the night sky in white, orange, green, or blue. The Perseid Meteor Shower around August 12 is one of the most reliable for seeing large numbers of meteors.

Conclusion

Using such references as the Old Farmer's Almanac, or Stardate and, plan your viewing ahead. These sources provide information on rising and setting time of the moon and various planets, phases of the moon, and conjunctions of planets. Meteor showers and lunar eclipses are also listed in such references.

If the weather permits, take a look at the night sky during a conjunction (when planets appear in close proximity to each other, the moon, or bright stars or constellation). Gradually learn to recognize the major constellations of the season. Plan a camping trip in the country during the Perseid Meteor Shower or a lunar eclipse.

Even in the city, one can often see the phases of the moon, and some of the planets or brighter constellations. Light pollution, seasonal cold, and cloudy weather are all problems at times. But there is little that can rival making an expedition into a rural area away from the city lights. The grandeur of thousands of glittering lights seen in a clear night sky can instill a sense of awe like few other activities.

Sources

The Old Farmer's Almanac, 2010

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27 February 2010 Published in Star Gazing

Queer Lake is a magical place. It is queerly shaped, leading one to think it is several different lakes when first discovered by the hiker. This is the epitome of the wilderness lake common in the Adirondack Mountains of northern New York. Located between Big Moose Lake and Racquette Lake, Queer Lake is a moderately difficult hike, about four miles from the nearest road, but well worth the effort. Queer Lake, 1979 to 2001

My first visit to this pristine lake was in October 1979. Starting late in the day, my friend Ed and I ended up setting up a tent in the cold rain of a mid fall evening at Queer Lake landing. We didn't realize the Lean-to was less than a mile away, and were too tired and miserable to slog on any further. Arriving at the lean-to the next day, it was already occupied by three men from New Jersey. We spent the cold, blustery day with snow flurries by playing cards and visiting with these other campers.

That four day backpacking trip included hiking further into the Pigeon Lakes Wilderness Area, to Chub Pond and other lakes. Some of this trail is very rugged, through deep boreal forest. The trails often have several blow downs, or fallen trees, blocking the path, and are poorly marked in places. Even then, Pigeon Lake had stands of red spruce under severe stress from acid rain, many trees dead or dying.

The following spring, my wife and I celebrated our honeymoon at Queer Lake for three wonderful days in late May. We actually caught some trout by fishing from the rock near the lean-to. This was the first of many family visits over the next 30 years.

In the early 1980s, several solo excursions into this area included making observations on loons and other birds. This was as a participant in the Loon Preservation Project and the first New York State Bird Breeding Atlas. These programs both had active research projects at that time. A few years later, there were family trips with our two growing sons, or with nephews in their teens, and occasionally alone. We went there the final time as a couple in August 2001. Unfortunately, a month later my wife had a major heart attack and is no longer able to hike the moderately difficult four to five miles.

Cascade Lake: Mergansers and Meteors

While we had been in to nearby easily accessible Moss Lake many times in recent years, it was in August 2009 that Queer Lake called to me again. This time the trip included my adult son, Larry, and friend Jason. A major reason for the chosen date was to coincide with the annual Perseid Meteor Shower. This is when debris from Comet Swift-Tuttle falls into the earth's upper atmosphere resulting in one of the most visible meteor showers of the year. Meteors can be seen a day or two either side of this shower's peak performance about August 12.

We hiked in via Cascade Lake, spending a pleasant night there in a tent. The most difficult part of this stretch was avoiding the horse manure left by a small group of riders that were leaving as we were arriving. This lake is easily accessible, just over a mile to a knoll along the north shore with several spots to pitch a tent. We had a very open view over the lake to the southern horizon.

The loons had been successful in breeding this year, with one young and two adults seen. A family of mergansers swam by while we were swimming, apparently undisturbed by our presence, diving in waves in a line almost like a large water monster. On August 11, between 9:30 and 10:00 pm we saw four meteors in twenty minutes.

Cascade Lake gets a lot of day use from families, individuals, and organized hikes from summer camps in the area. There is the option of hiking to the east end of the lake for a view of Cascade Falls, usually just a trickle of a stream falling over a fifty foot cliff. A hike circling the lake is about five miles round trip from the trail head on Big Moose Road.

Chain Ponds and Queer Lake Lean-to

Our real hike began the next day. The hills are rather steep, and one should be in good physical shape for this trek. A difficult mile and a half brings one to Chain Ponds, a series of small interconnected woodland ponds. The shore is generally inaccessible, the trail skirting the ponds several feet above water level. After passing these ponds, it is back to deep deciduous woods with a few conifers until one comes to a corner of the lake called Queer Lake Landing. Department of Conservation workers and fishermen sometimes portage canoes or row boats into here, and there were two workers there on August 12, testing water quality. Near by were two fisherman in a boat.

Nearly another mile of hiking brought us to the lean-to, recently refurbished and in pretty good shape. A lean-to is a log cabin with one open side. This side is protected by a steeply pitched roof, providing very good protection from stormy weather. The floor is off the ground a foot or more, and provides enough space to sleep six or eight people under the roof. The lean-to was recently painted dark brown, though close scrutiny revealed carvings of visitors names or initials going back to mid 1970s. There was a metal framed outhouse nearby, and the recent addition of a picnic table and bench. There was also a good stone fire pit.

Queer Lake Lean-to, like many other shelters throughout the Adirondack Park, had a journal and pens left in a plastic bag. This is for visitors to jot their thoughts, going back in this case to early 2008. Reading these lean-to journals is interesting with a mixture of observations on weather and wildlife, humor, and occasionally, bizarre sexual escapades. Entries here included those of volunteers and DEC workers involved in lean-to maintenance, regional back packers, and the occasional tourist, sometimes from Europe.

The 80 foot white pine that used to stand as a single sentry near the shore side boulder is long gone, blown down over a decade ago. Now only the trunk protrudes out into the water. A large branch from this tree lies parallel to the shallow shore. This provided the perfect perch for a merganser family in the misty fog early the next morning. After a few minutes, the adult female led seven young off in a line across the lake.

Near the end of the log was a tunnel type spider web, with strands spanning maybe twenty feet over the water from the log to rocks on the shore. It was built overnight, not seen when we went swimming there the previous afternoon. This peculiar web was a wonder of engineering. What kind of spider constructed it and how was it done?

Loons and other Wildlife Observation

Loons are a symbol of the Adirondacks and the North Country. During the two days there, three adults were seen, and their haunting calls echoed across the lake from time to time, including at night. They expressed dismay towards two low flying military planes by their drawn out high pitched screaming call. Most often, though, there were one note "hoos" with the occasional arpeggio call of two to four notes, rising and falling in pitch. For the first hour or two after dusk there was also the "who cooks for you, who cooks for you-all" of the barred owl. This night time call of the loon, mixed with the barred owl, is perhaps the essence of a remote Adirondack Lake.

Other birds were around as well, though fewer varieties than are usually seen in June or July. Fifteen species of birds were identified, with a few more unknown. Of note were the ravens, the sweet songs of the hermit thrush, winter wren and white throated sparrow. A ruby throated hummingbird flew right up to us, hovering momentarily a few feet away, inspecting us at close range, before disappearing as quickly as he had arrived.

Green frogs, bull frogs, and a variety of toads are also present, though, like the birds, not nearly so vocal in August as in spring or early summer. Chipmunks, red squirrels, and mice can be a common nuisance. If any food is left lying around expect to be raided by these rodents, or occasionally worse, such as raccoon, porcupine, or bear. Suspending food bags off the ground is a necessity in remote areas. This is changing more to use of bear proof barrels, and these are now required in some parts of the High Peaks. This particular trip, we had no problems with rodents.

And, of course, there are deer. When we first arrived at the lean-to, what looked like a large brown bird was in the middle of the lake. Pulling out the binoculars revealed it to be a deer. Two pointed ears and snout where visible, as was the spotted white of a fawn's back clearly visible just under the water's surface. This was the first time I had observed a swimming deer. It finally disappeared into the horizon across the lake.

The Perseid Meteor Shower

Our first night at Queer Lake was too cloudy for seeing any meteors, but a pair of barred owls and loon calls soon lulled us to sleep.

After a close encounter with the mergansers in the early morning mist, we took a day hike of half a mile to a peninsular point where a deep narrow channel connects two large portions of the lake. We went for a refreshing swim in water fifteen to twenty feet deep. But the serenity was spoiled by bees coming from a hole in a tree rooted near our rocky perch at water's edge. Larry and Justin were both stung, and we left shortly thereafter.

The night of August 13th was especially good for meteors, with eighteen meteors observed between 9:30 and 10:30 pm. Most were very brief, and covered ten to twenty degrees arc, but one was very bright with an arc of about 40 degrees. These observations were the best ever for this annual meteor shower for any of us. We might just make the week of August 12 an annual camping holiday.

While we had hiked in from Cascade Lake via Chain Ponds, on the return, about 1/4 mile beyond Queer Lake landing, we lost the trail near a blow down. A half hour's search failed to reveal this hidden trail, though we had come in this way. Fortunately, there was the option of backtracking to Queer Lake Landing and come out via Windfall Pond. That is likely the easiest way to hike into Queer Lake. Even with the delay, we made it back to Big Moose Road in just over three hours vs. the four hours in from Cascade Lake. But we were 1.5 miles from the trail head where we started. This meant an easier though hot and sunny walk down Big Moose Road, with an hour's break to swim at nearby Moss Lake. Our ride came at the pre-arranged time, ending yet another camping trip at Queer Lake in the remote back country of the Adirondack Mountains. Hopefully, it won't be the last.

27 August 2010 Published in Star Gazing

Cascade Lake, near the Adirondack hamlet of Eagle Bay, is an easy hike on a well-maintained trail. It is perfect for families with school-aged children to enjoy back packing in a wilderness area. Just over a mile from Big Moose Road, the north shore of this lake has a small sandy beach that is great for a swim on a warm summer's day. For those a bit more ambitious, a trail of about five miles circles the lake. Cascade Falls is on the east end of the lake. These falls have a granite vertical face perhaps 50 feet high and 80 feet wide, with the falls generally a trickle only a couple of feet wide in the center of this cliff. While a small section of trail near the falls is slightly hilly, and usually a bit wet, most of the trail is quite easy. This lake is a popular destination, sometimes up to several dozen people a day. However, once the sun goes down, chances are you would have the lake nearly to yourself with the quiet solitude increasingly difficult to find in today's world.

By mid August, the woods are eerily quiet, with birds only occasionally singing. The maniacal call of the loon or a barred owl's hoots may break the silence during the night. During the day, insects humming provide a barely perceptible background noise. The silence is occasionally broken by muffled road traffic, small planes with pontoons on aerial tours of the region for tourists, and Eagle Bay's noontime siren. However, the general silence is a welcome respite from the much noisier urban world.

Viewing the Night Skies

The north shore of this mountain lake is a great spot for viewing the night sky away from city lights. Around August 12, the annual Perseid Meteor Shower usually provides one of the best meteor showers of the year. Cloudy skies may, of course, frustrate viewing a meteor shower or night skies at times.

August 12, 2010, while the clouds and haze were intermittent, large sections of the sky were at times crystal clear. About twenty meteors were seen over a couple of hours prior to midnight. Most of the meteors seen streaked to the south or southwest, seeming to come from the constellation Perseus low in the northeast sky, below Cassiopeia. This gives this mid-August meteor shower its name.

The early crescent moon was setting about an hour after sunset, thus not interfering with the meteor show. In addition, Venus, Saturn, Mars, and later Jupiter were all visible that evening, a rather unusual experience. For those usually stuck in the light polluted world of urban and suburban areas, a remote area provides a much better show that what might be seen in the city.

For those unaccustomed to a clear rural sky, hundreds to thousands of stars light the sky like diamonds. Binoculars bring out many stars invisible to the naked eye. However, a meteor shower is best viewed with the naked eye.

From Cascade Lake's northern, one has a very expansive view of the nighttime sky, especially from the southeast to west. It was from this same location the writer and his young children observed a total lunar eclipse in the late 1980s. On that occasion, we were joined by several horseback riders who came into the area just prior to sunset specifically for this occasional occurrence, and clear skies made that event especially memorable.

A Lake for All Seasons

For those interested in fairly easy wilderness tent camping away from the crowds of state parks or commercial camping sites, Cascade Lake provides a very good option. This is an ideal place to introduce young children to the joys of wilderness camping. It is also great for a day hike of two to six miles with a nice location for a swim. A fall hike provides stunning color, with the red, yellow, and orange of changing leaves peaking from mid September to early October. In winter, it is easily accessible on cross country skis or snowshoes. Whatever the season, Cascade Lake is a great site to enjoy the outdoors of the Adirondack wilderness.

20 April 2010 Published in Celebrations & Festivals

Originally published on www.celebrations360.com

UNHCR and World Refugee Day

There are 42 million refugees world wide, reported the UNHCR in June 2009.  Sixteen million are outside their country of origin, and another 26 million are internally displaced people.  This affects warring or politically repressed nations, but also their neighbors, and countries worldwide where refugees have sought asylum.  Sudan, Burma (Myanmar), Iraq, Somalia, and Afghanistan all have significant refugee crises.

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16 April 2010 Published in Celebrations & Festivals

Originally published on www.celebrations360.com

The History of Flag Day

On June 14, 1861, Hartford, Connecticut was home to a special celebration honoring the flag.  George Morris, of Hartford, is given credit for promoting the idea, commemorating the day in 1777 when the Second Continental Congress formally adopted the precursor of the United States flag we know today.  This first flag birthday party was overshadowed by somber reality.  Prayers of support were offered for those soon to fight in the still young Civil War. The idea of an annual Flag Day did not catch on at the time.

18 April 2010 Published in Celebrations & Festivals

Originally published on www.spiritualliving360.com

Ascension Day is a Christian holy day commemorating the ascension of Jesus Christ into Heaven.   It is a Thursday, 40 days after Easter, though some U.S. churches observe it on the following Sunday.  In Western Churches using the Gregorian Calendar, the date varies from late April to early June, almost always in May.  In Churches using the Julian Calendar it is usually about two weeks later.

Biblical and Early History

The New Testament records Christ visiting the disciples on several occasions after his Resurrection (Easter Sunday).  Several weeks later he journeyed with them to the Mount of Olives in Bethany, a short distance outside Jerusalem.  There he ascended into Heaven in their presence. Then two angels came to the disciples, proclaiming what had happened.  While mentioned in the Gospels (Mark 16:19 and Luke 24:51) the most complete rendition is in the first chapter of the Acts of the Apostles.

There is no firm documentary evidence of the observance of Ascension Day prior to the early 5th century, though St. Augustine’s writings imply it was celebrated long before his time, some say as early as 68 A.D.

A religious holiday, many in today’s secular society know very little about it.  Though observed in the Anglican (American Episcopalian) Church, and Orthodox Churches, it is better known as a Roman Catholic holy day.

Significance in the Church Calendar

In the Catholic Church, attending mass is expected on this holy day of obligation.  It was known at one time as Holy Thursday. This term now usually refers to Maundy Thursday.  The Eve of Good Friday is when Christ had his symbolic Last Supper of bread and wine with his disciples.

The Sunday before Ascension Day was known as Rogation Sunday, but since the Second Vatican Council of 1970 is simply the Fifth Sunday after Easter.  Three (traditionally fasting) Rogation Days follow, just prior to Ascension Day.

On this day, the Pascal, or Easter Candle, is extinguished, officially ending the Easter season.  There are seven devotional days, followed by two days of further preparation for Pentecost by the Priests, completing a nine-day novena. The next day, Pentecost, 50 days after Easter, commemorates the Holy Spirit descending upon the disciples with “tongues of fire,” as related in the Book of Acts of the Apostles.   This marks the actual beginning of the Christian Church.

Observances and Superstitions

There are many symbols used in some of the special ceremonies and services on Ascension Day.  A lion defeating a dragon symbolizes Christ defeating the devil.  In some places, chasing a “devil” through the streets is following by burning it in effigy or dunking it in a pond.  Other symbols include the rising Christ, a broken chain, and birds flying homeward.  

In some Churches there is the symbolic raising of a statue of Jesus above the altar and through a special door in the roof.  Many churches have a special blessing of the first fruits, often grapes or beans.

Outdoor processions with banners and torches are part of the celebrations in many places.  In England, this procession is sometimes led with the banner of a Lion, while a banner with a dragon brings up the rear, symbolizing Christ’s victory over the devil.

In some parts of Italy, such as Tuscany, families go on a picnic in the country, and children collect crickets that are brought home in a small cricket cage.  It is good luck if the cricket is singing in its cage when brought back home.  In some places, this is known as “La Festa del Grillo,” or the Feast of the Cricket.  This is now often held on the Sunday after Ascension Day.

Venice has a long history of celebrating Ascension Day.  The Doge of Venice left the city on this feast day in 1000 A.D. to assist the Dalmatians against the threat of the Slavs, improving Venetian security. 

In 1177, the Doge made peace with the Papal States.  Honoring his service, Pope Alexander III presented a special blessed ring to him, assuring Venetian sovereignty over the seas.  This evolved into a special ceremony, the marriage of the sea.  A flotilla of ornately decorated boats sail into the Lagoon to the church of San Nicolò de Lido, where a ring is ceremoniously thrown by the Mayor of Venice into the water, uniting the city with the sea. Francesco Guardi immortalized this ceremony in his paintings of the late 18th century.

Superstitions

There are many folk superstitions surrounding this day.  In Wales, it is bad luck to work on Ascension Day.  In Devon, it is thought that clouds will appear in the shape of a lamb.  Some believe that eating lamb on Ascension Day will lead to a sty in the eye and retinal detachment.

Rainwater gathered on Ascension Day is thought to help eye diseases or inflammation.  Others believe that rain on this day predicts a poor harvest and illness among livestock, particularly cattle, while a sunny day predicts a long, hot summer.

Ascension Day completes the cycle of the life of Christ.  These are just some of the special celebrations and superstitions that surround this important day of the Christian calendar that ends the Easter season.  

Sources

Cowie, L. W., and Gummer, John Selwyn.  The Christian Calendar.  Springfield, Massacusetts: G. & C. Merriman Company, Publishers, 1974.

Web Sources

An overview of Ascension Day Customs and Traditions

http://www.timeanddate.com/holidays/us/ascension-day

Ascension Day Meanings and Traditions

Encyclopedia:  Feast of the Ascension

Religious Tolerance .org 

Being Catholic:  Ascension Day

21 March 2010 Published in Celebrations & Festivals

Originally published on www.celebrations360.com

May Day is not widely observed in the United States due to a societal collective amnesia of its historical origins.  It is a green holiday of Spring flowers and maypole dances celebrating the coming summer.  It is also a red holiday of the international labor movement, red hues intensified by militaristic parades in communist countries during much of the 20th century.

The Church discouraged many traditions of Spring as pagan.  The stifling of pagan customs has a long history in Europe since the earliest days of Christianity.  This continued into the Middle Ages as the Church’s influence expanded into new areas of northwestern Europe.  

In the United States, the Establishment decried May Day’s strong association with the labor movement and its early ties with anarchists, and later, with international communism. This fear of radical socialism led the Establishment to respond by obscuring and denying much of labor history. With the creation of Americanization Day, Loyalty Day, and Law Day on the first of May, the government’s hope was to compete with and ultimately absorb the holiday originally meant to celebrate the hopes and dreams of the common laborer.  This has been largely successful.

Ignoring these historical origins led to an ambiguity that is difficult to reconcile.  Both inside and outside of the government, May Day has been variously tacitly neglected or actively rejected.  On closer examination, it comes as no surprise that Americans are largely ignorant of either side of this holiday with a split personality.

The Green Side:  Seasonal Changes in the Natural World

May is a month of flowers in middle latitude countries of the Northern Hemisphere.  Many indigenous peoples of North America called May the Flower Moon.  This marked the beginning of warmer weather with flowers and greenery evolved from the first buds of the Worm Moon and the equinox a few short weeks earlier.

In Europe, traditions are much better documented, though the mists of antiquity obscure exact origins.  The Romans had many flower festivals in the spring.  These celebrations fused with pagan customs as the Church’s influence moved north and west during the Middle Ages.  The Celts, in particular, celebrated May Day as the beginning of Summer.  It was recognized as a cross-quarter day on their calendar, midway between the vernal equinox of March and the long days of June’s summer solstice.

Many different customs related to greenery, fertility, and Spring became part of May Day festivals.  Flowers and dancing around the Maypole are the iconic images of this Spring holiday.  These customs were especially popular in Scandinavia and northern Celtic countries.

May Day, as a Spring festival, was never widespread in the U.S.  With the New Age and Environmental Movements of the 1970s this began to change, though slowly.  In northern Europe, May Day has had a much longer continuous observance.  In keeping with the Celtic Calendar, six weeks after May Day comes the solstice, still commonly called “Midsummer.”

The Red Side:  Labor Day and International Solidarity

Few Americans realize that the red side of this holiday had its origins in the American Labor Movement of the late 19th century.

The Haymarket Riot

On May 1, 1886, some 40,000 workers and anarchists marched in Chicago, supporting the 8-hour workday. Two days later, at a striker’s rally at McCormick Reaper Works, Pinkerton guards broke up a small demonstration.  Police clubs and rocks led to gunfire with at least two union supporters killed.

A public meeting was held the next day at Haymarket Square to protest the police brutality.  As the crowd dwindled from about 2000 strong, the police came with a force nearly as large as the 200 people still present.  An anonymous bomb was thrown, killing a policeman, and injuring several others.  This led to gunfire and several police and labor supporters were killed. This became known as the Haymarket Riot.

Eight anarchists, mostly German and British immigrants, were quickly arrested and ultimately convicted of murder.  There is little doubt that they were innocent of the crime and convicted unjustly.

After several failed appeals, four men were executed on November 11, 1887, while a 5th committed suicide, or was murdered in prison.  Illinois Governor John Peter Altgeld pardoned the last three several years later.

Shortly after the Haymarket Riot, labor movements in Europe and other places recognized this as the beginning of an international labor movement.  Samuel Gompers, the long time head of the American Federation of Labor, urged the European labor movement, through an emissary, to proclaim May 1 as a day to celebrate international labor. This was gradually accomplished in many countries, but not in the U.S.  In Mexico, where May Day was recognized in 1913, it is still called “The Day of the Chicago Martyrs.”

Grover Cleveland’s second term from 1893 to 1897 was a time of depression and high unemployment.  In the spring of 1894, Jacob Coxey led a march on Washington.  This had begun with 25,000 disgruntled workers in Ohio; they were about 400 strong by the time they reached Washington on May Day. Coxey was arrested for trespassing in this first large-scale march of protest on the nation’s Capital. 

On June 28, that same year Congress passed a resolution proclaiming the first Monday in September as Labor Day.  This day was chosen because the first known Labor Day celebration in the U.S. was held on September 5, 1882.  A large parade organized by the Knights of Labor in New York drew about 10.000 people.  Originally, September had been chosen for Labor Day as it fell roughly midway between July 4 and Thanksgiving, a period devoid of holidays.

Loyalty Day and Law Day

Impressions that May Day was a holiday celebrating socialism and communism increased in the United States after the Russian Revolutions of 1905 and 1917.   In response, the first “Americanization Day” was held May 1, 1921 at the urging of Patriotic groups.  Sources conflict on the details, and some say Americanization Day was first observed in 1932.  In the 1920s and 1930s there were many large patriotic parades on May Day.  Gradually, this evolved and merged into Loyalty Day, which Congress declared in 1947. President Eisenhower formally proclaimed May 1 as Loyalty Day in 1958.

May Day became even more confusing with the development of Law Day.  Sources again conflict on the details. Congress passed a resolution proclaiming May 1 as Law Day in 1958. Other sources say it began in 1961 with a proclamation by President Kennedy.

This proclamation day focuses on various aspects of our legal justice system.  With the support of the American Bar Association and other agencies within the legal system, there are public speakers at dinners or luncheons, and other educational seminars.

Anyone who lived through the 1950s and 1960s recalls the TV news clips of Red Square in Moscow, and in other communist capitals, presenting the latest military hardware with the pomp and circumstance of goose-stepping soldiers on parade.   During this period, at the height of the Cold War, in response to Loyalty Day / May observances, Senator Jacob Javitts of New York said, that American ideas were the highest “ever espoused since the dawn of civilization.” Governor Rockefeller of New York made the telling comment that to celebrate the traditional May Day “bordered on treason.”

An attempt was made to revive May Day as a holiday of the working class in America with massive demonstrations by immigrant workers on May 1, 2006.  This was in response to proposed strict anti-immigration laws passed by the House of Representatives, but not by the Senate.

It is unlikely that this attempted revival will have any significant effect on elevating May Day to the status it has in many countries around the world as a day celebrating the common laborer.  The U.S. will likely continue with Labor Day in September as a three-day weekend at the end of summer.  Large Labor Day parades are uncommon. The holiday is usually a time for that last barbecue, picnic, or trip to beach before the kids go back to school.

As for the green side of the holiday, spring celebrations will likely continue with flower festivals and spring clean ups.  Various schools, environmental, and public service organizations promote awareness of the environment with tree plantings, spring clean ups, and educational events combined with flower, bird, or garden festivals.  These occur most weekends from mid-April to mid-May. 

The green May Day has effectively been merged into a collective spring and environmental observance, a fusion of the Celtic beginning of summer with late April’s Arbor Day and Earth Day.  While these events celebrate various aspects of spring, there is no fixed day or date that has really caught on to the extent that we celebrate Hallowe’en or St. Patrick’s Day.

Sources:  Books

Krythe, Maymie R.  All About American Holidays.  New York:  Harper & Row, Publishers,1962.

Moore, Kathryn.  The American President: A Complete History.  Fall River Press, New York, 2007

Matthews, Jon.  The Summer Solstice:  Celebrating the Journey of the Sun from May Day to Harvest. Wheaton, Illinois:  Quest Books, Theosophical Publishing House,  2002

Myers, Robert J. (with the Editors of Hallmark Cards).  Celebrations: The Complete Book   of American Holidays. Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company, 1972.

Internet Sources

The History of May Day  http://www.marxists.org/subject/mayday/articles/tracht.html

Loyalty Day http://www.theholidayspot.com/mayday/loyalty_day.htm

Law Day http://www.theholidayspot.com/mayday/law_day.htm

May Day :  The Real Labor Day http://flag.blackened.net/daver/anarchism/mayday.html

The Brief Origins of MayDay-Industrial Workers of the World http://www.iww.org/projects/mayday/origins.shtmlhe

Labor Day – May Day http://faculty.cns.uni.edu/~campbell/gened/labour.html

May Day: The Forgotten Labor Day http://www.ueunion.org/uenewsupdates.html?news=311

The Incomplete True and Authentic History of May Day www.midnightnotes.org/mayday/

http://www.midnightnotes.org/mayday/red.html    http://www.midnightnotes.org/mayday/green.html

Cornell Law School http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/36/usc_sec_36_00000115-000-.html

Holidays: Loyalty Day in the United States http://www.timeanddate.com/holidays/us/loyalty-day

Holidays  Law Day in the United States http://www.timeanddate.com/holidays/us/law-day

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The Mohawk Valley Almanac provides a wide variety of information on fairs and festivals, wildlife, and the natural world in this historic region of central New York State. Many annual regional fairs and festivals celebrate the seasons, agriculture, historical and religious holidays, the arts, sports, and ethnic heritage of the diverse population. The natural world of birds and other wildlife, weather, astronomy, and gardening in a climate with cold and snowy winters are also featured.

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