What’s the Spiritual Season this week? Baha’u’llah’s birthday, Berlin opening, Sesame Street and Veterans Day


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What’s the Spiritual Season?
(November 9 to 16, 2009)
By Stephanie Fenton

THIS WEEK, we honor veterans two days in a row—on
Tuesday with an American Legion anniversary and again on Wednesday with
Veterans Day. Thank you, veterans! Also this week, it’s always a “Sunny
day” on Sesame Street, which celebrates its 40th anniversary. Monday,
citizens around the world reflect on the fall of the Berlin Wall and on
Saturday, we remember the pioneering spirit of Nellie Bly. Wednesday
evening, Baha’is begin to say “Happy birthday!” to Baha’u’llah, and on
Sunday, Orthodox Christians begin the 40-day Nativity Fast. Read all
about these events and observances below …

it’s been just 20 years since East Germany opened its borders and “took
down” the Berlin Wall. After nearly three decades of separation, East
and West Berliners danced together atop the wall, talking, laughing and
celebrating.The communist leaders of East Germany officially gave their
permission in the early morning hours, and by mid-morning, hundreds of
Germans along the 28-mile wall had begun to attack the concrete. This Newseum site offers some great “exhibits” on the Berlin Wall.
As World War II ended, Berlin—the capital of Germany, home of the Nazi
regimes—was in ruins. The U.S., Great Britain, France and the Soviet
Union divided Germany and Berlin into four zones with each country
controlling a zone. Soon, however, the Soviet Union’s quarter came
under a communist dictatorship. Tensions rose between the WWII Allies
from the West and the Soviet Union until, in 1949, separate governments
were constructed in East Germany and West Germany (read an in-depth story here, from the BBC).
Millions of Eastern residents, desperate to escape the depressed area
where food and housing were scarce, began to flee to the Western side.
To stop fleeing residents and establish an official barrier, the Berlin
Wall was constructed. Attempted escapees were often punished severely
by Eastern border guards. The
Globe and Mail, a sector of Globemedia Publishing of Canada, features
10 awe-inspiring photos of the wall, its history and its tear-down
    In commemoration of the 20th anniversary, Berlin and other nearby cities have been in a jubilant state all year. (Travel Germany, a German tourism site, has all of the details.).
Special events and exhibits have popped up all over Berlin in 2009,
creating—as many visitors attest—a distinct energy of unity. Read what this visitor had to say, on Luxist.com.
The Westin Grand Berlin is even offering a unique package that includes
the opportunity to hammer away at a part of the wall that has been
placed in front of the hotel! Find out the inside scoop from this story on MSNBC.
    In the U.S., The Wall Project in Los Angeles
has garnered national interest. Through November 14, visitors can see
parts of the real Berlin Wall along Wilshire Boulevard. Berlin resident
Thomas Goerner donated these sections to the project-and artists have
painted portraits on the donated pieces.Yesterday, a documentary was
made of a reenactment of the fall of the wall. If
you’d like to hear from Berliners on their memories of this famous day
in 1989, watch this video in courtesy of the Guardian, a UK newspaper
So what are the spiritual themes here? If you lived through the Cold
War, you know already. For decades, American school children were
taught that the world was divided into two enormous halves—the “Free
World” and … well, the terrible Communist World. The tumbling of the
wall was also a tearing down of one stereotypical view of global

    To this day, Germans debate the aftermath of choices made
throughout the 20th Century. One interesting debate, right now,
concerns the legacy of required religious education in German schools. According to Reuters,
the Pro Reli campaign argues that Berlin’s laws should allow students a
choice between a faith-based religion lesson and an ethics course, and
experts argue over which one would result in a more constructive

TUESDAY, can you tell me how to get to Sesame Street?
Join Bert, Ernie, Big Bird, Elmo, Grover, Oscar the Grouch, Cookie
Monster and all the beloved childhood characters as they celebrate
their 40th season!
On November 10, 1969, children across the country tuned in to the first
episode of this cultural phenomenon on PBS. Never before had children’s
television offered anything quite like this—and as of 2008, the program
had banked more Emmy Awards than any other television show in history. (Click here for 40 Fun Things You Didn’t Know About Sesame Street.)
Today, the famous street continues to provide a place where
multi-ethnic and multi-generational residents live together in peaceful
coexistence. Here at ReadTheSpirit, we commend that!
    Back in
1969, television was far from kid-friendly. When Lloyd Morrisett, an
experimental psychologist, walked into his living room to find hi
3-year-old daughter mesmerized by the TV test pattern, he knew
something had to change. After telling the story at a dinner party a
few weeks later, the party’s host, Joan Ganz Cooney, dreamed up Sesame
Street. (Here, Time pays tribute to the Street with a slideshow of photos, including some of the show’s first episode.)
“Educators were virtually ignoring the intellect of preschool
children,” said Cooney, who worked with the show since its beginning.
After the launch of “Sesame Street,” the curriculum of kindergarten
classrooms changed dramatically. Suddenly, hoards of children were
entering school already recognizing letters, numbers and basic math
functions. Newsweek commemorates this incredible show with a fantastic article on “How Sesame Street Changed the World.”
According to a 2001 study, the show’s effects on reading and
achievement last through high school! “Sesame Street” continues to take
its learning seriously, as it plans to spend $770,000 on its department
of education and research in 2009. (Read more at Sesame Workshop.)
Sesame Street stays current by featuring award-winning Web pages,
interactive, colorful game sites, blogs and much more. It has expanded
its educational objectives to include healthy eating, bilingual
learning and life’s tough issues, just to name a few. Two years ago,
major cities including New York, Hong Kong, London and Mexico City
declared October 10 “Panwapa Day,”
the day a multimedia project began that encouraged youth to appreciate
global citizenship. And where did this idea come from? Well, Sesame
Street, of course!
    On an interfaith note, Sesame Street recently
introduced its newest character as Leela, a Hindu. As of August 2008,
Leela has taught viewers about Indian and Hindu culture and festivals.
    In our special ReadTheSpirit magazine section for Christian youth groups, this week’s theme is Sesame Street—asking teens what they remember most fondly and how childhood stories change over time.

is our first veterans celebration of the week: On this day 90 years
ago, the American Legion held its first annual convention. The American
Legion, chartered by Congress, is an organization of U.S. veterans. As
with Veterans Day (which is tomorrow), the American Legion was founded
after WWI. Today, it boasts approximately 2.7 members. View some historic photos here.
    When you think of the American Legion,
you may think of parades or other commemorative events. But the
American Legion does more than that: It gets front-and-center in
lobbying for veteran benefits, the Veterans Affairs hospital system and
more. Find out how the Legion very recently co-raised $100,000 for soldiers on active duty.
    In 2005, the American Legion caused quite a stir when it pushed to get the Public Expression of Religion Act made into law (read full details on the California American Legion site).
Well-known for its support of religion and opposition to atheism, the
American Legion wanted protection of its right to “withdraw the
authority of judges to award attorney fees, or damages … against the
Boy Scouts, the Ten Commandments or other public displays of America’s
religious history, such as … religious symbols at veterans memorials.
Legion representatives argued their right to keep the constitutional
right of freedom of expression of religion. In September 2006, the
House passed an amended version of the bill, deemed the Veterans’
Memorials, Boy Scouts, Public Seals, and Other Public Expressions of
Religion Protection Act of 2006. Our Voice, the publication of the American Legion, covered this story two years ago.
The Legion has also kept its religious motto, “For God and Country.” We
know that these can be highly contentious issues with Americans on
various sides of this complex debate. What is your opinion? Email us.

thank a veteran. On this day, the Commonwealth of Nations recognizes
Veterans Day! Veterans Day officially began after fighting in WWI—or,
The Great War—had ceased on November 11, 1918. (View the 2009 Veterans Day poster here).
In 1919, President Woodrow Wilson declared November 11 as the first
observance of Armistice Day in America, saying, “To us in America, the
reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the
heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude
for the victory …” On November 11, Americans were encouraged to hang
flags high, cease business until later morning hours, give tributes in
schools and reflect on those who had earned Americans their freedoms.
It wasn’t until after WWII that November 11 expanded to include all
veterans, and therefore came to be called Veterans Day. Approximately
2.9 Americans are veterans today—many of them regularly in the news
this year in the national debate over treatment of veterans and
especially returning soldiers.
    The National Veterans Day Ceremony is held each year at Arlington National Cemetery (find out details on the state of Virginia’s Web site), but if you’d like to show your appreciation in a personal way, Annie’s homepage
has some wonderful ideas of how you can reach out for Veterans Day.
Among her many suggestions are: Write a soldier on active duty; visit a
veteran’s hospital, taking along some flowers or homemade treats; visit
your local veteran’s memorial; pray for a service person or offer to
help your place of worship give a tribute to veterans. (Also, this site, deemed “sermon central,” has some intriguing Veterans Day sermons).
    This year, the Library of Congress is co-hosting a National Teach-In on veterans history. Visit this History Channel site to learn how your local school can tune in! If you’d like to watch the Teach-In, but your schedule doesn’t permit it, an archived webcast can be viewed at Veterans.com.

WEDNESDAY at sundown, a
Baha’i holy days begins celebrating the Birth of Baha’u’llah. Born in
1817 in Iran, Baha’u’llah’s coming was foretold by the Bab. Baha’u’llah
is considered to be a Manifestation of God (along with Moses, Abraham,
Christ, Muhammad, Krishna and Buddha), and is the founder of the Baha’i
faith. Baha’is believe that a loving Creator has sent these figures
throughout history to find the world’s great religions and to help us
know how to worship Him. Read more about Baha’u’llah’s life on the BBC Web site.
    According to Baha’i tradition, Baha’u’llah declared his birth one of four great festivals (read more on Wikipedia).
Another great festival is the birthday of the Bab, and Baha’u’llah
called both his and the Bab’s birthdays “Twin birthdays,” declaring
that they should be seen as one in “the sight of God.”
Baha’u’llah’s son encouraged Baha’is to celebrate his father’s birthday
to increase unity in the community. Today—and for the past four decades—Baha’is in the Washington, D.C. area have hosted a large birthday party for Baha’u’llah.

SATURDAY, release your inner sense of adventure! On this day 120 years ago, Nellie Bly—inspired by the book by Jules Verne—set out to travel the world in 80 days.
The woman who started out as a baby christened in a bright pink gown
turned into a global figue of strong spirit, an unfaltering passion for
justice and the bravery to make changes that the world had not yet seen.
Elizabeth Cochran—whose later took on her more famous pen name—was born
in Pennsylvania. At the age of 18, Nellie wrote an infuriated,
anonymous letter to the Pittsburgh Dispatch. The editor was so
impressed with her writing that he asked her to show herself. After one
conversation, the editor hired Cochran as one of the few women
journalists of her time (also asking her to change her name to Nellie
Bly, so that her name wouldn’t sound so “feminine”).
    Bly was a
pioneer in investigative reporting when she posed as a sweatshop
worker, and even a mental patient, to expose terrible conditions. Bly
was thrown out of countries, threatened by companies and causing an
uproar for her exposure of truth when, in the fall of 1888, she caught
wind of a creative idea: a fictional hero in Jules Verne’s novel
traveling around the world in less than 80 days. Nellie—now employed by
the New York World—laid down a public challenge that she could do it in
less time. She also threatened to do it for another newspaper if the
New York World did not send her. (Read more fun facts on Nellie’s life here, from the Library of Congress ).
On November 14, 1889, Bly began her journey, returning 72 days, 6
hours, 11 minutes and 14 seconds later. Bly was a global celebrity and
Verne’s novel was more popular than ever (Verne continues to remain the
most translated author in the world today). If
you’re interested in reading even more about this fascinating woman’s
life, see this essay, from the New York City Women’s Biography Hub
. Or, if you’re more intrigued by her journey around the world, check out this neat multimedia online exhibit from PBS.
(Here’s an intriguing note on spirituality in Verne’s novel: Religion
and global culture were not portrayed by Verne in what, today, would be
considered an appropriately balanced way. But Verne did at least spark
worldwide interest in other cultures. Verne himself was Roman
Catholic—and one of the unusual American religious sidelights in his
novel was chapter 27 about Mormonism.)
    When Nellie Bly died in January of 1922, all New York newspapers ran a detailed obituary. Read the archived obituary from the New York Times here.
    According to an article on Scholastic’s Web site,
few Americans might recognize the name “Nellie Bly” today. But 100
years ago, it would have been difficult to find an American who did
not. For a whole plethora of sites that feature Nellie, NellieBly.org is a great place to go.

SUNDAY, Orthodox Christians begin the Nativity Fast,
an observance that lasts 40 days—almost two weeks longer than Advent
for Western Christians—and ends on Christmas. Through physical fasting,
Eastern Christians also focus on fasting from sin. Using this time for
reflecting on Jesus’ birth and helping the poor are also popular parts
of the Nativity Fast. Read more on the Web page of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America.
Based on the glitter and commercialism surrounding the Christmas
season, non-Christians may believe that Dec. 25 marks the most
important day of the Christian calendar. Don’t be fooled! In fact,
Pascha (Easter) is considered more important.

    Nevertheless, the Nativity preparation includes some fascinating
traditions: For example, during the Nativity Fast, physical demands are
withheld on the numerous feast days that recognize Old Testament
prophets who Eastern Christians believe spoke about the incarnation of
Christ. Two Sundays prior to the Nativity, the church celebrates the
ancestors in Jesus’ bloodline. On the Sunday before the Nativity Fast,
Orthodox Christians recognize the many men and women who pleased God
and lived sometime between creation and St. Joseph. The strictest fast
day is the Eve of the Nativity, Dec. 24, during which no solid food is
consumed until the first evening star is seen in the sky. Some
traditional Orthodox churches still hold an All-Night Vigil on Dec. 24,
although most places of worship do not. (Read what the Orthodox Church in America has to say about the reasons for fasting).

    Many traditions vary across the enormous Orthodox world. For
instance, the Coptic Orthodox Church (with roots in Egypt but followers
around the globe) begins fasting three days earlier than its “sibling”
sects: This branch fasts early to honor the moving of the mountain of
Mukattam through St. Simon the Tanner in 975.

    The Armenian Apostolic Church recognizes the Nativity date as January 6, and begins its Fast of Advent on Nov. 19.

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