Presidents Day, aka Washington’s Birthday (and Lincoln’s too!)

MONDAY, FEBRUARY 17, 2014: “Washington’s Birthday,” a federal holiday popularly known as Presidents Day (punctuation of the day’s name varies).

FEBRUARY 12: Abraham Lincoln’s birthday in 1809.

FEBRUARY 22: George Washington’s birthday in 1732.

Once upon a time, Americans marked the birthdays of two of our most beloved presidents each February. During the Christmas season, families who watch the 1942 musical Holiday Inn (the first film in which Bing Crosby sang White Christmas) know that Bing’s Vermont-based inn hosted separate celebrations for each presidential birthday. Through the 1950s and 1960s, millions of American school children cut up construction paper and made faces of both presidents on two different days.

Today, American culture tends to smoosh both men (and sometimes even more presidents) into something called “Presidents Day,” but that isn’t the name of the federal holiday that falls on February 17 this year. That’s still officially called “Washington’s Birthday”—even though the current version of Washington’s Birthday never seems to fall on his actual birth date. If this sounds like a classic example of D.C. bureaucracy … well … consider …

Our first president’s birthday was declared a holiday by the U.S. Congress in 1879. Nearly a century later, in 1971, the Uniform Monday Holiday Act began moving the first president’s birthday around the calendar to ensure that, each year, workers would get a three-day weekend.

To make matters more confusing, Lincoln’s Birthday is an official February 12 holiday in a handful of U.S. states ranging from California to Connecticut and, of course, including Illinois. Given the deep regional divisions following the Civil War, the entire nation wasn’t likely to celebrate the 16th president’s birthday. Currently, Arizona, Missouri and West Virginia are about as far South as Lincoln’s statewide birthday celebrations extend.

For Lincoln’s birthday in 2014, Lincoln scholar Duncan Newcomer takes an inspiring look at what Abraham Lincoln would say about American values, today. What values? Newcomer uses the 10 core values documented in a new book by University of Michigan sociologist Dr. Wayne Baker and compares that list of 10 with Lincoln’s life and legacy. (Because this is a sesquicentennial era of the Civil War, ReadTheSpirit has many Lincoln-related resources.)

Take your pick—and, students, follow your teachers’ instructions. Some gurus of the English language still insist that the popular holiday should be spelled Presidents’ Day with an apostrophe. But, the widely used Associated Press Stylebook says: No apostrophe is needed.


FeedTheSpirit columnist Bobbie Lewis offers a creative—and oh so yummy—solution to celebrating both presidents! She’s got a recipe for a Cherry and Apple Pie (plus a story about her own holiday memories and how they affected her appearance on the Jeopardy! game show).


Each year, as government offices, banks and other organizations close down for the holiday—retailers do their best to rack up mid-winter sales. Beyond department stores and shopping centers, General Motors is running a Presidents Day sale through the end of February, aimed especially at moving full-sized pickup trucks at Chevrolet and Buick-GMC dealers. Check Sunday newspapers on February 16 for a load of advertisements!

Clearly our 30th president (Cal Coolidge) was onto something, when he told the American Society of Newspaper Editors in 1925: “The chief business of the American people is business.”

Every year, ideas surface for expanding the observance. The Buffalo News, this year, argues that residents in that part of New York state should honor two often-forgotten presidents: Millard Filmore (No. 13) and Grover Cleveland (No. 24), the two men who made it from Buffalo all the way to the White House. No word yet on whether that particular observance will go viral in western New York.

Public schools usually close on Presidents Day, but this year a growing number of school districts in the northern states are planning to stay open to make up for the extra “snow days” these districts already have taken in this especially bitter winter season.

Here’s a treat for your family … The National Park Service has announced: “All 401 national parks will provide free admission to everyone February 15-17 to honor our nation’s leaders and their accomplishments. Visit one of the scores of national parks with a direct connection to a president, including birthplaces, homes, monuments, memorials, and historic sites. … Check the calendar of events to find special activities taking place in national parks across the country.”

(Originally published at, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

‘I Have a Dream’ echoes as millions recall Martin Luther King, Jr.

“And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back.”
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., August 28, 1963

Holidays & Festivals Column Covers This Historic Milestone …

WEDNESDAY, AUGUST 28: It was a moment so thick with tension, and so opportune for mounting violence, that TIME Magazine voiced what every American seemed to be sensing: “The moment seems to be now.” For better or for worse, America was teetering on the brink of change: conflicts over civil rights were gathering speed at an alarming rate, as police used violent means against protestors and the FBI bugged activists’ phones.

It was in this perilous moment that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. stepped to the microphone at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. and became what TIME Magazine today describes as: “a new founding father” and “the moral leader of the nation.”

I have a dream today!”

Caught in the passion of the moment and the 250,000 onlookers who had come to support the speakers, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. dropped his papers and ad-libbed a portion of his speech. Nearby, the gospel singer Mahalia Jackson called to him: “Tell them about the dream, Martin!” Originally intended as “The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom,” Dr. King’s words now echo around the world. This week, TIME declares in a special issue on the March and the Speech: “Casting aside his script, King reset every standard for political oratory. Presidents ever since ahve been trying to match his words, power and moral authority.”

King quoted the Bible, Shakespeare and Abraham Lincoln, referenced the United States Constitution and current events, before sharing his dream with the crowd. Coretta Scott King remarked that it was “as if heaven had come down to earth … like the kingdom of God had descended on the Lincoln Memorial right there in our midst.”

I have a dream today!”

Dr. King’s speech would alter the course of the civil rights movement from that day forward. At the anniversary, from Washington to New Hampshire to Switzerland to Tokyo—bell ceremonies will literally “let freedom ring,” as Dr. King requested at the end of his speech, on this day in 1963.

The ‘Dream,’ the Hopes—and Reality

How did the world change? And how much did it change? By some measures, America and the world changed a lot because of the March on Washington and King’s enduring message. One way to see the global change is to read a series of four short profiles on the origins of King’s peacemaking—and the legacy of his teaching—written by Daniel Buttry.

But in America? In terms of real economic change—one of the central themes of the March—surprisingly little has changed. Gaps remain in some major measures of economic equality across race and ethnicity. Sociologist Dr. Wayne Baker, creator of the OurValues project, reports on striking new conclusions drawn by the Pew center based on nationwide research.


REP. JOHN LEWIS AND THE COMIC BOOK: Quite a few news headlines and TV reports over the past week have focused on  U.S. Rep. John Lewis, the last remaining speaker from the March. Lewis is prominent in TIME magazine’s special issue. He is especially popular, these days, for becoming the first U.S. Congressman to publish a comic book: The March. Read our separate story today that tells why Lewis agreed to create this historic comic series about the civil rights movement.

NEWS ABOUT KING’S ‘LETTER FROM THE BIRMINGHAM JAIL’—Today, Duncan Newcomer reviews Gospel of Freedom, a new book by Jonathan Rieder that tells the story behind King’s most famous letter. Americans also are celebrating the 50th anniversary of that letter, this year.

‘HOW DR. KING ALMOST GOT ME FIRED’—Edward McNulty now is best known as a leading writer on faith and film, but in the late 1950s he was a young pastor and was deeply inspired by King’s message. In a new column, McNulty writes about how that inspiration led him into an unexpectedly tough confrontation.


Friend, advisor and lawyer Clarence Jones recently reported in an interview that excitement for the march began when newspapers published Dr. King’s letter to him, from jail—and it was Nelson Rockefeller who met Jones with a bag of $100,000 in cash to bail Dr. King out of jail. Following bail, Dr. King hid in Jones’ home for six weeks before the March on Washington.

Apprehension had been mounting in the weeks leading to March day, and President Kennedy had unsuccessfully tried to thwart the event in talks with civil rights leaders. At the time, a Gallup poll revealed that 60 percent of Americans disapproved of the march, or didn’t think it would accomplish anything. (A USA Today column goes in depth.) Though speakers had agreed they would keep these events calm and orderly, extra measures were taken and thousands of troops were deployed, nearby businesses shut down and the city banned liquor sales.

When the March on Washington proved a success, few Americans had changed their perspective on the civil rights movement. It didn’t take long to sink in, however, and in the wake of the march and speech, King was named TIME’s Man of the Year. In 1964, Dr. King became the youngest person to be awarded a Nobel Peace Prize. In 2002, the Library of Congress added King’s speech to the United States National Recording Registry; one year later, the National Park Service inscribed words from Dr. King’s speech into the step where he had stood at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963.


It was 50 years ago when George Raveling, a 26-year-old former college basketball star, was recruited to volunteer at a speech by Martin Luther King, Jr. Though few could predict the lasting influence of this particular speech, it was Raveling who casually asked Dr. King for the paper copy of the speech, following its deliverance—and it’s Raveling who owns the original paper speech today. (Read the story at CBS News.) Decades passed before the former basketball coach realized the importance of what he kept informally tucked in an autobiography of Harry Truman, and in 1984, the revelation came to light. Raveling says he has been offered $3.5 million for the document—which, ironically, doesn’t contain the words “I have a dream” anywhere—but will never sell it. “The speech belongs to America, the speech belongs to black folks,” he said in an interview. “It doesn’t belong to me, and it would be sacrilegious of me to try and sell it to profit from it.” (View the paper copy of the speech at

TIME Magazine has pulled out all the stops for the “I Have a Dream” anniversary, launching a multimedia site——as well as its special issue dedicated to event’s 50th. The multimedia site contains 10 videos, courtesy of Red Border Films, all of which give testimonials from the key people who made the march a success.

In an interview with the UK’s Mirror News, Clarence Jones recalls jotting down several paragraphs of ideas for Dr. King’s speech the night before, many of which King used in his address. Yet what had been planned as a four-minute speech quadrupled in length when, from the crowd, gospel singer Mahalia Jackson inspired King. Variations of the “dream” speech had been heard elsewhere before, but never was it delivered at a more appropriate time—or to a more fitting audience—than on that day in Washington. (Wikipedia had details.)

Celebrants in Atlanta will gather by the thousands this week for the Atlanta Global Freedom Expo, which will showcase storytelling from the ground crew who attended the march; display period entertainment and dance; feature food demonstrations and an open house at Dr. King’s birthplace. (Get more information from The event is free.

“Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

‘Cakes & Prayers’: 60th anniversary for Mount Everest, Queen Elizabeth II and a unique interfaith celebration

WEDNESDAY, MAY 29, and SUNDAY, JUNE 2: The New York Times captured the spirit 60 years ago in its headline: “CAKES and PRAYERS.” The Times staff was scrambling to assemble scattered information on the first successful human ascent of the world’s highest mountain. The Times story described New Zealand beekeeper Edmund Hillary and Sherpa guide Tenzing Norgay as eating mint cake and offering prayers at the summit. It was a moment of “reverence and gratitude,” the Times reported, as “each man prayed in his fashion.” Hillary (1919-2008) was Christian; Norgay (1914-1986) was a devout Buddhist.

Around the world, the British Commonwealth still was recovering from World War II. The startling news of a human conquest of Everest’s deadly height snowballed into coverage of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Newspapers reported that the first news-flash to reach London of the Hillary-Norgay success was delivered personally to Elizabeth on the eve of her big own big event. Reporters described the Everest accomplishment as a coronation gift for the new queen.

These landmark anniversaries will be jointly commemorated this year when Hillary’s son, Peter, and Norgay’s son, Jamling, join Queen Elizabeth II at the Royal Geographical Society in London.


In the months approaching the 60th anniversary of the first ascent of Mt. Everest, climbers of every age and ethnicity have been heading to the mountain to break more records. In a book released in tandem with the anniversary, humanities professor Peter Hansen points out that human fascination with Everest is a powerful metaphor for our changing relationship with the environment. The book is titled The Summits of Modern Man: Mountaineering after the Enlightenment.Hansen argues that mountain peaks were viewed with awe and reverence throughout most of human history. Only with the Age of Enlightenment did popular culture shift toward “defeating” these massive works of nature.

We know you’re wondering: What are the latest stats for Mt. Everest climbs? Upward of 3,000 people have scaled the world’s tallest mountain since Hillary and Norgay—with more than 200 perishing in the attempt—but recently, more mountaineers than ever have been attempting to break records. Here’s the official list:

    • Oldest: Japanese climber and extreme skier Yuichiro Miura scaled Everest at age 80, just a couple of weeks ago—his third ascent of Everest since his 70th birthday.
    • Youngest: American Jordan Romero took on Everest at age 13 in May 2010.
    • Most frequent: Nepalese native Apa Sherpa has reached Mt. Everest’s top a record 21 times. “Super Sherpa” made his 21st climb in May 2011. Sherpa also is a global hero because of his work with the Eco Everest Expedition, the team that has brought down more than 12 tons of other climbers’ garbage over the past three years.
    • More 2013 firsts: Arunima Sinha became the first woman to climb Mt. Everest with prosthetic legs; meanwhile, Raha Moharrak became the first Saudi woman to top Everest, making a dent in the conservative Saudi view of women’s roles. Nepalese climber Chhurim (who, like most Sherpas, goes by just one name) became the first female to summit Everest twice in one season.

As pointed out by both scientists and Norgay’s grandson, Everest celebrations should also recall the crucial need to preserve the Himalayas. Tons of garbage has collected on the mountain from climbers through the years. The mountain’s runoff waters are vital to a large region during the dry season, so decomposing refuse can spell catastrophe for tens of thousands. Global warming is melting snow and ice atop the Himalayas at an increasing rate, causing glaciers to disappear faster every year. (The Guardian reports.)  After a 13 percent overall glacier shrinkage since Hillary and Norgay took to the peak—the climb is quite different now than it was 60 years ago.


Events surrounding the coronation went on for weeks and news stories popped up around the world day after day. In the era after World War II—but decades before the Internet—a “live television” broadcast from an unfolding news event was rare and exciting. The BBC network had been a pioneer in this technology and first broadcast a live TV show in 1929! But live on-the-scene news events were unknown until after World War II. In 1953, the crowning of Elizabeth was the first coronation ever broadcast live. (Watch a portion of that original broadcast on YouTube.)

On that day, 27-year-old Elizabeth rode the Gold State Coach through the streets of London, leaving Buckingham Palace to arrive at Westminster Abbey. Approximately 3 million spectators had been lining the streets overnight to catch a glimpse of Elizabeth, and more than 200 microphones had been stationed along the procession route. Foreign royalty and heads of state rode in a seemingly endless parade of carriages, as 750 commentators broadcast the events in 39 languages. (Learn 50 facts about the Queen’s Coronation from the official website of the British Monarchy.)

Despite objection by Prime Minister Winston Churchill, Elizabeth had previously asked that her entire coronation be filmed by television cameras—with the exceptions of being anointed and taking communion. Before 8,000 live spectators and millions of television viewers, Elizabeth swore an oath to uphold the laws of her nations and to govern the Church of England. As Elizabeth left Westminster Abbey that day, guests sang out, “God Save the Queen.”


Sixty years isn’t the same as a 50-year or centennial milestone, so anniversary events vary widely. Most are regional in nature. Check news sources in your part of the world for events marking these 60th anniversaries. Many public television stations across the U.S. will be airing a three-part series on the life of Queen Elizabeth II called The Diamond Queen; some also will air a portion of the 1953 TV coverage of Elizabeth’s coronation. But, check your local TV guide for details and these programs will not air everywhere.

Popular media is buzzing over the royal baby’s due date of July 13—right in the middle of Queen Elizabeth’s Coronation Festival. British newspaper also are reporting on the more serious role that the queen has played in recent history. The more conservative Telegraph newspaper headlined one story: “Only the Queen has Been Our Constant,” commenting on her loyal status through the ever-changing demands of the last six decades. The Telegraph also notes, in a separate story, that the next royal coronation will break longstanding tradition by making a place for people of faith outside of Christianity.

Rosa Parks’ courage celebrated on her 100th birthday

CLICK THE COVER to visit the book’s Amazon page.MONDAY, FEBRUARY 4: As Americans mark the centennial of Rosa Parks, a new biography is sparking a fresh appreciation of her wisdom, courage and long decades of civil rights activism. Many popular stories about the “Mother of the Civil Rights Movement” cast Mrs. Parks as an ordinary woman who touched off a bus boycott through her almost accidental moment of stubbornness after a long day of work.

“If we follow the actual Rosa Parks—see her decades of community activism before the boycott; take notice of the determination, terror and loneliness of her bus stand and her steadfast work during the year of the boycott; and see her political work continue for decades following the boycott’s end—we encounter a much different ‘Mother of the Civil Rights Movement,’” writes historian Jeanne Theoharis in The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks, published January 29.

New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow praises Theoharis’s book: “Parks, like many other Americans who over the years have angrily agitated for change in this country, had been sanitized and sugarcoated for easy consumption. … Fortunately, this book seeks to restore Parks’s wholeness, even at the risk of stirring unease.”

PBS also has posted a fascinating interview with Theoharis about the new book.

Wikipedia offers an extensive history (with lots of helpful links and archival photos) about Parks’ long life. She was born February 4, 1913, in Tuskegee, Alabama, as the daughter of a teacher and a carpenter. Her ancestry was a mix of Cherokee-Creek, African and Scots-Irish. She lept into the global spotlight on December 1, 1955, by refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white passenger. She died in 2005 at age 92. Because of her significant role in American history, she was honored as the 31st person, the first woman and the second black person to lie in state in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol.

Originally published at, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.

EU officially lists UN Holocaust Remembrance Day

Auschwitz-Birkenau was liberated on Jan. 27, 1945. The UN adopted a Holocaust Remembrance Day for this dateSUNDAY, JANUARY 27: International Holocaust Remembrance Day extends beyond the United Nations today, enveloping all of the European Union: for the first time since its inception, the European Union incorporated this day of memorial onto its official calendar. The United Nations established International Holocaust Remembrance Day by resolution in 2005, declaring that it would not deny any aspect of the Holocaust as an historical event. The anniversary date of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp—January 27—would mark the annual remembrance of the Holocaust. This year, UN Member Nations are creating educational programs based around the theme, “Rescue during the Holocaust: The Courage to Care.” Persistent recollection will, in hopes, prevent acts of genocide in the future.

Days before the international memorial, the UN kicked off its initiative with a speech by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Aside from discussing historical events Ki-moon brought attention to the 60,000 killed in Syria since the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad in early 2011. With the conflict escalating, Ki-moon expressed concern “not simply because of the terrible suffering, but because of what may come next. Each day’s delay in resolving the crisis raises the spectre of the violence spreading along religious and ethnic lines.” Other events through the week included the Discussion Papers Journal, a compilation of 10 papers written by Holocaust and genocide studies scholars from across the globe, intended to spark discussions among students and raise awareness. Also released was a documentary film by Emmy award-winning filmmaker Michael King, entitled “The Rescuers” and highlighting the efforts of diplomats who risked their positions and lives to save tens of thousands of lives during the WWII.

National days of commemoration existed prior to the UN’s International Day, such as German’s Day of Remembrance for the victims of National Socialism, but the State of Israel desired something greater and introduced Resolution 60/7 to the UN as the International Holocaust Remembrance Day. (Wikipedia has details.) Today, the entire EU observes the memorial, as well as UN Member Nations and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC.


While the European Parliament hosted remembrance ceremonies on Jan. 27 in recent years, 2013 marks a significant milestone: for the first time, the date was officially placed on the EU calendar. (Israel National News has the story.) The kickoff year embraces a theme of honoring the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising heroes, and the president of the European Jewish Congress remarked that “the fact that this event is warmly embraced by the most prominent European institutions sends a strong message against hate, racism and anti-Semitism.” The 2013 ceremony is set to take place in Brussels.

Inauguration Day 2013: Abe Lincoln to Kelly Clarkson

SUNDAY-and-MONDAY, JANUARY 20 and 21: Monday is the big celebration and, for most Americans, is the Inauguration Day that rewrites history as our first African-American president begins his second term. Already connections with Abraham Lincoln’s Civil War-era second inaugural are flooding news coverage. BUT—and this is a great bit of American trivia to share with friends—the real Inauguration Day is January 20, so President Obama will privately take the oath on Sunday. The eyes of the world will be watching on Monday, but the truth is: The president already will be 24 hours into his second term.


The White House website—as Americans, it’s “our” White House website—offers many ideas for getting involved. The inauguration weekend began with the National Day of Service and culminates on the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day national holiday. So themes of public service and volunteerism has been spreading coast to coast throughout the past week. This White House Inauguration 2013 landing page shares videos, stories and links to get involved. The theme: “Everyone has a part to play” and “It’s all about US.” The Washington Post reports on the linkages between public service, the inauguration and the King holiday.


Pointedly taking a page from President Abraham Lincoln’s historic Second Inaugural (“with malice toward none, with charity for all”), the event’s planning team has been reaching out to a wide array of people who have been separated from Washington D.C. in various ways. The Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies set one goal: Helping people with disabilities to have a better experience in 2013. This includes closed-captioning of the speeches direct to hand-held devices for hearing-impaired persons. Plans also call for greater assistance to help physically challenged people join in the crowd on the Mall. USA Today reports on the efforts and the need: “With hundreds of thousands of people coming to Washington this weekend for the inauguration, getting around will not be an easy task for people with disabilities.”

The LA Times and other news outlets are reporting on the healing of relations with pop superstar Kelly Clarkson. The singer is beloved by her fans for her outspoken nature. Her pride in her less-than-skinny shape has been a boost to the self esteem of other full-bodied Americans. Her sassy commentary on pop culture always makes her interviews a quotable opportunity for reporters. However, in early 2012, a Clarkson Tweet seeming to endorse Ron Paul touhed off a firestorm of angry responses. Later, Clarkson supported President Obama’s re-election campaign. But, as the LA Times reports, her appearance at the inauguration, belting out “America,” will be another sign of healing relationships.


Throughout 2013, ReadTheSpirit is publishing inspiring stories about 150th-anniversary events related to President Abraham Lincoln, the Emancipation Proclamation and Lincoln’s attempts to heal a tragically wounded nation. Here is our index to recent stories about Lincoln and this year’s 150th events. News media currently are buzzing with connections and comparisons to Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, a message that Teddy Roosevelt called “a speech which will be read as long as the memory of this nation endures.” Here is a complete text of that 6-minute address, delivered 152 years ago. (Note of clarification: Inauguration Day fell in March that year so we haven’t yet reached that precise sesquicentennial moment.)

Prominent among the historians who are commenting on these connections, right now, is Boston University’s Stephen Prothero, who wrote a commentary for the Wall Street Journal that draws heavily on his own new book The American Bible. For the Journal, Prothero began by describing the two Bibles President Obama will use in the inauguration: “President Barack Obama will employ two Bibles: the Bible Abraham Lincoln used in 1861 at his first inaugural ceremony and a ‘traveling Bible’ used by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. It is tempting to see Mr. Obama’s choice of these two Bibles as an effort to underscore his legacy as America’s first black president. But this choice can also be read theologically, as the president’s assent to a theological tradition that runs from the Puritans to Lincoln to King and beyond.”


Throughout January, the authors at the WeAreCaregivers website are inviting the nation’s caregivers to take charge of the 2013 calendar. After all, the more-than-60-million caregivers who serve elderly, disabled and chronically ill people in our communities tend to dread a new calendar. Author Dr. Benjamin Pratt wrote about the idea of creatively declaring new holidays. This week, he is proposing a new twist: He calls it OUR Inauguration Day.

Originally published at, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.

Originally published at, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.

Anniversary: 120 years since premiere of The Nutcracker

Photo in public domainTUESDAY, DECEMBER 18: Glittering nutcrackers in every shape and size fill store shelves this time of year, thanks to Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker—which premiered in Russia 120 years ago today. On this evening in 1892, the two-act ballet was paired with an opera for attendees of the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg. Based on an adaption of E.T.A Hoffman’s story, The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, the original ballet was met with criticism for sloppy choreography, out-of-shape dancers and a confusing storyline. (Wikipedia has details.) On the contrary, Tchaikovsky’s contribution to the performance—the musical suite—received rave reviews. With improvements made to the choreography, The Nutcracker has exploded in popularity since the 1960s. Today, nearly every ballet company performs a rendition of the tale, in almost every city in America, during the Christmas season.

Following much success with The Sleeping Beauty in 1890, Tchaikovsky was commissioned by the director of the Imperial Theatres to compose a double-bill program, which would include both an opera and a ballet. Under stringent restraints, Tchaikovsky was told both the tempo and number of bars he must use. Despite the demanding instructions, Tchaikovsky composed one of the world’s most popular scores. From opening night, critics deemed it “astonishingly rich in inspiration” and “beautiful, melodious, original and characteristic.”


The Nevada Ballet Theatre knocked The Nutcracker off its wooden boots this season with a brand-new, special-effects strewn, bigger-than-life rendition of the classical tale (ringing in with a budget of $2 million). While it may be too much for traditionalists, the Las Vegas show dazzles with digital snowstorms, giant clocks and a cavernous dollhouse. It’s no wonder, though—head scenic designer Patricia Ruel took a cue from her work with sets for Cirque du Soleil. Some critics argue that the dancers get lost among the over-the-top scenery, but rest assured: one thing this show does right is deliver a true Las Vegas punch.

Hosting a Nutcracker-themed party? Get ideas from Martha Stewart Weddings editorial director Darcy Nussbaum, who was recently featured in the Wall Street Journal.