What’s the Spiritual Season this week? An Islamic New Year, but first … GWTW, Posadas Navidenas—and “true” aliens?


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What’s the Spiritual Season?
(December 14 to 20, 2009)
By Stephanie Fenton

THIS WEEK, we take a look back at the popular-yet-controversial “Gone with the Wind,” which premiered 70 years ago. On Wednesday, Mexican Christians begin Nativity preparations with Posadas Navidenas (pictured above), and on Thursday, we look to the skies for Wright Brothers Day and the 40th anniversary of the closing of Project Blue Book (read about the interesting theories of God and aliens below)! And Thursday evening, Muslims reflect on the past year as they begin the New Year, 1431 AH. Read all about these events and observances below …

HAPPY Hanukkah to our Jewish readers! Click here to read more about the festival in last week’s Season column, when Hanukkah began. Or, click here to enjoy the story of one family’s Hanukkah customs.

TUESDAY, my dear, it’s the 70th anniversary of the classic film, “Gone with the Wind.” On Dec. 15, 1939, the film version premiered in Atlanta and imprinted an image on the city that remains evident today (Our Georgia History provides a “Gone with the Wind” timeline).
    The film opened three months after World War II began in Europe and, although America wouldn’t enter the war for two more years, the movie was a vivid reminder of the ravages of such all-out conflicts. According to the Atlanta Constitution, 300,000 people gathered to watch the film stars arrive at Lowe’s Grand Theater that night; nothing in Atlanta’s history had ever drawn such a crowd. One of the top celebrities that night was Margaret Mitchell, the novel’s author, a Pulitzer Prize winner and a fellow Atlanta resident. (Margaret Mitchell’s house remains a popular tourist attraction.)
    Although the film won eight Academy Awards, its 70th anniversary celebrations must also be met with a serious look at the values woven into the film—or, more specifically, racist attitudes in the depictions of some characters and the unrealistic portrayal of life in the South. Not only is slavery portrayed as morally acceptable in “Gone with the Wind,” but plantation life is shown as friendly and loving. (The Seattle Times recently published an article about this.) What we know today were the crimes against humanity involved in slavery are absent in the film.
    Even when the film opened, this tension flared. Georgia’s Jim Crow laws prevented Hattie McDaniel and other black actors from attending the premiere, despite a threat by Clark Gable to boycott the event. (Wikipedia has more details.) “Gone with the Wind” also presented the opportunity for Hattie McDaniel to become the first African American to win an Academy Award.
    Should the 70th anniversary of this film be a time of celebration, honoring how far America has come over the past 70 years? Or, should it be a solemn time of reflection on values of the past? What do you think?

WEDNESDAY, Mexican and some Central American Christians begin preparing for Christmas with the Posadas Navidenas, focusing on the nine days prior to the “Holy Night” of Christmas Eve. (If you’ve ever wondered where the tradition of caroling comes from, many argue that this is it.) These nine days focus on the Nativity, through reenactments of the search for lodging by Joseph and the Virgin Mary.
    During Posadas Navidenas, various families in a neighborhood will “host” the holy couple in their home. Traditionally, each Christian home has a Nativity scene. During these nine nights, children and adults mock the need for a place to stay and request such by singing a chant at the doors of homes in the neighborhood. (Mexconnect offers images, song lyrics and more.) In processions, people carry lit candles, and four young people carry small statues of the Virgin Mary and Joseph leading a donkey. This procession, known as Los Peregrinos, will request lodging at three homes, but only the third home will accept them. (The Christmas in Mexico Web page provides more details.)
    Once inside the “host” home, everyone kneels around the Nativity and prays the entire rosary before singing holy songs. Following the devotional rights, festivities begin! Children break open a pinata to reveal candy and sweets, food is served and adults enjoy spiked hot punch with cinnamon sticks. (This site provides information about Posadas Navidenas, as well as tasty recipes.)
    In some places, Posadas Navidenas has evolved into parties at nine friends’ houses prior to Christmas Eve. Traditionally, though, and in many rural towns, the religious aspect of these rites still exists. (Read about Christmas in Mexico, as well as Christmas traditions around the world, here.)
    While the rites of Posadas Navidenas have been solely Christian since the 16th century, the celebration that existed prior had Aztec roots. During the nine darkest days of the winter, Aztecs honored the God of the Sun and asked for his return. In the 16th century, St. Ignatius Loyola used this Aztec festival to teach natives about the birth of Jesus Christ.

THURSDAY, look to the sky—it’s Wright Brothers Day! On Dec. 17, 1903, a mechanically propelled airplane that weighed more than air was successfully flown for the first time by its makers, Orville and Wilbur Wright. (The Wright Brothers Aeroplane Company is a virtual museum dedicated to the dynamic duo’s invention.) This first aircraft, named “Flyer,” flew for 12 seconds and reached 120 feet above the ground. (Here is a fun aviation craft for kids. Or, here is an airplane page to print out and color.)
    Across the country, local events such as field trips to aviation and flight museums complement the Wright Brothers dinner in Washington, DC, observations at the Wright Brothers National Memorial and more. (This site offers biographies, timelines, kids’ pages from NASA and much more. Or, if you would prefer to go directly to the kids’ pages from NASA, click here.)
    Did you know that these sons of flight were also the sons of a minister? Milton Wright was a minister of the United Brethren Church, and as an adult, Wilbur often contributed to the magazine that his father edited, Religious Telescope. (This government site has a detailed biography of the Wright family.)
    (The United Brethren Church merged with another group in 1946, and then with another group in 1968 to become the United Methodist Church. However, the direct descendant of Milton’s unique sect of United Brethren—a group that never merged with another group—is the modern-day United Brethren Church.)

Also on THURSDAY, we look to the skies for a different reason—40 years ago today, the U.S. Air Force closed Project Blue Book, reporting no evidence of extraterrestrial existence behind thousands of UFO sightings. (Wikipedia has an in-depth overview of Project Blue Book.) The United States Air Force completed three consecutive studies of UFOs to determine whether the flying objects were a threat to national security and to scientifically analyze them: Project Sign (1948); Project Grudge (1948-1952); and Project Blue Book (1952-1969). By the time that Project Blue Book was closed, it had gathered 12,618 UFO reports, 701 of which remained classified as “unidentified.” The U.S. Air Force has not publicly researched UFO sightings since these projects ended and the Condon Report was issued. (Visit the Project Blue Book Archive for more than 50,000 official documents related to UFO phenomena. The site provided by the U.S. government also provides great archives. )
    Edward Ruppelt headed the Air Force investigations from 1951-1953, and was best known for neutralizing and standardizing many of the projects’ testing terms and methods. Besides replacing terms such as “flying saucer” and “flying disk” with “unidentified flying object,” Ruppelt streamlined the methods by which UFOs were reported to and by military officials. (Wikipedia’s page provides details on Ruppelt and his time with Project Blue Book.) Ruppelt also ordered the development of a standard questionnaire for UFO witnesses, so that reported data could be used for statistical analysis.
    During his tenure, Ruppelt took his job seriously and worked to erase the hokey stigmas often associated with UFOs. Nevertheless, many critics argue that Project Blue Book covered up UFO evidence and failed to investigate multiple cases. Some critics even argue that the U.S. Air Force continued such a project even after Blue Book had been publicly closed.
    And if Project Blue Book had found evidence of extraterrestrials, would it have closed the book on religion? Well, not necessarily. Some theologians believe that God can take on the flesh of any creature, and therefore could incarnate on multiple planets. Many people, however, find this idea silly, as did Thomas Paine in The Age of Reason. Paine, a famous skeptic of religion, wrote that “and sometimes God himself would have nothing else to do than to travel from world to world, in an endless succession of death, with scarcely a momentary interval of life. … He who thinks he believes in both [Christianity and this reincarnate theory] has thought but little of either.”
    A majority of Hollywood depictions of aliens envision them as evil by our human standards—but aliens might be morally as well as technologically more advanced than Earthlings. (The Atlantic Monthly published an excellent article on this topic in 2003.) Those who believe in Darwin’s theories of evolution could argue that an alien species could genetically eliminate evil behavior. Spiritually advanced beings, however, would put to the test the concept of God favoring humans.
    Since at least the medieval era, small religious sects have arisen claiming that aliens from other planets spiritually interact with humans. One of the most infamous of these groups in recent years is the Raelian movement, founded by a French journalist who once covered auto racing and claims he encountered a space ship in 1973. One of several reasons the group is highly controversial involves its claims about pursuing human cloning, which sparked global headlines some years ago.
    See? Things can get pretty strange, once one begins scanning the night skies in earnest. Or, as Shakespeare put it: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

THURSDAY at SUNSET, Muslims begin a new spiritual year with Al-Hijra (or Hijri, spellings vary), the Islamic New Year. (Read more at the BBC site.) The Islamic New Year is recognized on the first day of the Islamic month of Muharram (the month Muhammad emigrated from Mecca to Medina in 622), and each year following has the suffix “AH,” or “After Hijra.” It was common in the ancient world to mark a year after a major event took place; thus it was the case with Al-Hijra. (IslamOnline has related stories and more for this event.) This year will be the Islamic year of 1431.
    Unlike the recent Eid holidays, worldwide customs haven’t formed around Al-Hijra nor are there elaborate festivities. Tonight and tomorrow, many Muslims reflect on the past year, contemplate the year to come and exchange greetings.


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