Closing the Chinese New Year with a Lantern Festival

Chinese Lantern Festival at one of Taiwan’s largest public monuments.SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 24: “The Lantern Festival ends the 15-day period of the Spring Festival. Traditionally, children went to the temples on this night carrying paper lanterns. Nowadays, cities in China and abroad hold elaborate festivals with glowing parade-float lanterns shaped like dragons and other large animals. People enjoy outdoor concerts and fireworks. There are thousands of smaller lanterns, too, either carried by people, or as in Taiwan, sent floating up into the sky. Many lanterns have riddles on them, with the solutions being wishes for good luck, family reunion, abundant harvests, prosperity and love.”

This vivid description is part of Deng Ming-Dao’s new The Lunar Tao: Meditations in Harmony with the Seasons, which ReadTheSpirit reviews today in another column. As Deng points out in his book, “Lighting a fire was one of the first things that primitive people learned to do.” In the Lantern Festival, the kindling of lights at night remind everyone of humanity’s shared roots. A lantern “welcomes the spirits, is brave in the darkness, welcomes people home. That light is the beginning of the human. It also represents spirituality: enlightenment.”


Deng is right to point readers toward Taiwan for this festival that closes the New Year holiday period. (See our earlier story about the Chinese New Year of the Water Snake.) Across Asia, millions of Chinese are preparing to head back to work, often in distant industrial cities far from their ancestral home towns. At such a bittersweet moment of the year, Taiwan’s night sky explodes in bright lights.

The Taipei Times reports on one spectacular lantern, this year, that will be 10-meters high and 70-meters wide, formed into a curved screen called the Ring of Celestial Bliss onto which images will be projected. “This will be the largest and most eco-friendly lantern in the world,” the newspaper reports. “The steel and bamboo used to build it can be recovered or recycled, and the recycled plastic used to make the inner projector screen will be transformed into 600 to 700 environmentally friendly bags at the end of the event. The Ring also uses 155 LED strips, which can save up to 80 percent of the energy used by more common halogen lights.”

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.

Anniversary: 50 years for Beatles’ first single

Photo in public domainTUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 11: A group once self-described as “more popular than Jesus” recorded their first single 50 years ago today. Of course, the Beatles were only dreaming of fame as they recorded their first single in London, “Love Me Do” (with “P.S. I Love You” on the flip side). Principally written by Paul McCartney, the Beatles’ first song was completed by a 16-year-old and his friend, John Lennon.

Where did the song originate? A now-famous school notebook held jotted notes that the two friends would eventually turn into songs, and the words “Another Lennon-McCarney Original” topped each page of the notebook. Once released, the first single immediately grabbed attention for its described “blunt working class northerness,” which rang “the first faint chime of a revolutionary bell.” The single was released in the UK and reached the 17th spot on the UK chart. The group was met with overwhelming favor in the United States, however, where “Love Me Do” hit no. 1 in 1964.


When Lennon first made the remark in an interview for a British fan magazine, there was no public outcry. It was deemed an honest comment about how startled the Beatles were over their fans’ frenzy.

But in the religiously conservative United States? Few comments from rock stars have ever stirred such public opposition. Shortly after the American outcry, Lennon—albeit begrudgingly—apologized for his words, insisting that he had only been stating a point of view. At a conference, Lennon described his belief that God is “not as an old man in the sky. I believe that what people call God is something in all of us.”

Although the band’s press officer apparently claimed that all of the Beatles had abandoned organized religion by 1964, the fact is that they dabbled in Hinduism at points in their career and even studied under the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. George Harrison continued belief in the Hare Krishna tradition until his death, and produced the single “Hare Krishna Mantra” in 1969. Lennon, on the other hand, continued to discard religious teachings and wrote lyrics such as “I don’t believe in Jesus” and “Imagine … no religion, too.”

‘Gospel According to the Beatles’

But is that the last word on the Beatles and faith? Hardly! Many analysts argue that the Beatles actually were in the vanguard of young people rejecting “organized religion” in favor of deeper spiritual values and global ideals. If that sounds like a vague concept, ReadTheSpirit recommends The Gospel According to the Beatles, a wonderfully thought-provoking book published by British journalist and music expert Steve Turner.

In his book, Turner admits that many readers may think his argument is preposterous. Yet, throughout the book, he describes many ways the Beatles ushered in a new era of spiritual experimentation. With their strong influence on a generation of young adults, they put a friendly face on Eastern religious traditions, they welcomed bearded Asian sages, they experimented with hallucinogenic drugs and told the world what they found in such trips, and they generally promoted transcendence and a search for new kinds of peace to millions of followers.Turner argues that the subsequent “New Age Movement” wouldn’t have flowered as fully without the Beatles’ pioneering influence.

Turner writes: “Whether or not we think it fitting that a pop group should be looked to for guidance on such matters—that’s what happened.”


The Beatles recorded “P.S. I Love You” with a session drummer; shortly following, Ringo became the principle drummer. In “Love Me Do” and “P.S. I Love You,” Ringo played a tambourine and a maraca.

Paul McCartney recently announced two new stops for his On the Run tour, in St. Louis and Houston; rumors have also been spreading online that McCartney could be heading to Canada this fall.

Anniversary: Centennial birthday of Gene Kelly

Click the Blu-ray cover to visit its Amazon page.THURSDAY, AUGUST 23: “He would want to be remembered for changing the look of dance on film and creating a particular American style of dance,” says his widow Patricia Ward Kelly in a new interview with the Biography website. She was a main participant in the July series celebrating Kelly’s life, work and films hosted at the Lincoln Center in New York City.

Kelly remains a very popular movie star. Not only is this his 100th birthday—it’s also the 60th anniversary of one of his most famous films: Singin in the Rain (now available in a new 60th Anniversary Blu-ray edition). Here’s a tip on that Blu-ray release: Amazon currently is selling it as a very low price; the 2-disc DVD version has been priced at more than $30, but the Blu-ray is listed by Amazon at around $12 this summer.


In an era of dance revival in shows like “Glee” and “Dancing With the Stars,” Kelly has experienced a major upswing in popularity; add this to digital meeting grounds like Facebook and Twitter, and the late star is shining brighter than he has in decades. (‘Like’ “Gene Kelly the Legacy” here.) Don’t forget, too, that Kelly broke ground in onscreen dance—not only with his style but in feats like film’s first double exposure (Cover Girl, 1944) and dancing with a cartoon character (Anchors Aweigh, 1945). Ever the comedian, Kelly often said his favorite dance partner was Jerry the mouse “because he showed up on time and worked his little tail off.”


Kelly, born in Pittsburgh in 1912, was raised Irish-Catholic with what today sounds like a stereotypically strong Irish-American mother. His parents dreamed of seeing him become an attorney and perhaps even the first Irish-Catholic justice on the U.S. Supreme Court. That shaped Kelly’s educational goals, including his choice to major in economics at the University of Pittsburgh in the 1930s.

Biographer Alvin Yudkoff, in Gene Kelly: A Life of Dance and Dreams, reports that Kelly later claimed that he was an agnostic. That apparently was a fairly private protest against his family’s faith, Yudkoff writes. The shift was partly due to the grinding poverty Kelly witnessed in some predominantly Catholic countries.

Ironically, Yudkoff reports, Kelly was married three times before he died in 1996 at age 83—but his strict Catholic upbringing made him stand out among Hollywood luminaries as someone who did not engage in casual sexual relationships. While morally strict himself in many ways, he also became known in the 1950s as a political liberal. That’s when he teamed up publicly with Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall and the director John Huston in presenting a united front against Joe McCarthy’s congressional hearings and blacklisting campaigns.

MGM boss Louis B. Mayer was famous for his ill temper and sole focus on MGM’s bottom line. He didn’t like Kelly’s activism one bit, but he also staunchly defended his star, saying “He couldn’t possibly be a Commie because he is a Catholic boy who loves his mother.”


Turner Classic Movies will be showing several of Gene Kelly’s movies on his centennial, including “An American in Paris,” “Cover Girl,” “Anchors Aweigh” and, of course, “Singin’ in the Rain.” (Check out the schedule here.) Says TCM’s daytime weekend host Ben Mankiewicz of Kelly’s stereotype-busting grace: “Gene Kelly spoke about how Americans are afraid to apply the word ‘graceful’ to men as if it would diminish their masculinity, but he, himself, was maybe the most graceful man we ever saw on screen.”

Buddhist, Japanese: Millions honor ancestors at Obon

Reflect on ancestors with the Buddhists during Obon. Photo in public domainOBON WORDS OF WISDOM: “The weight of obligation we owe to our parents is as boundless as the heavens.” The most important sentiment of the human mind and heart is that which repays obligation. Japanese Sutra

FRIDAY, JULY 13: Eat sushi and circle ‘round for a Bon dance, because it’s that time of year again: Obon season! Across Japan, Hawaii and Japanese communities worldwide, the festival of Bon Odori is in full force. A Buddhist-Confucian custom, the Japanese have been visiting ancestors’ graves and honoring the spirits of deceased loved ones during Bon Odori for more than 500 years. (Wikipedia has details.)

When the Japanese lunar calendar was changed to the Gregorian calendar, the date of Obon spread out: “Shichigatsu Bon” became the modern observance, marked in Tokyo and eastern Japan in mid-July; “Hachigatsu Bon,” based on the lunar calendar, is celebrated in mid-August. Nonetheless, Japanese communities take this season to rejoice in their culture and share it with others. Obon festivals often span several days and include public Bon dances, tea ceremonies, fireworks and carnivals. (Cook up an authentic recipe and learn more about the tedious work of Obon food preparation in Monterey County Weekly. Or, learn how to make your own paper lantern from this PDF.)

On a more personal level, Obon means that families take time to freshly decorate household altars and reunite with family members at ancestral gravesites. (Make a summer-themed grave blanket for your loved one by adapting this easy winter blanket “How To”.)

The traditional story behind Obon begins with a disciple of Buddha. When this disciple used supernatural abilities to look upon his deceased mother, he saw that she was suffering in the Realm of Hungry Ghosts. (Obon is shortened from Ullambana, meaning “hanging upside down” and implying much suffering. Get a Buddhist perspective from the Shingon Buddhist International Institute.) The disciple mourned his mother’s state, and pleaded to Buddha for a way to free her. As Buddha instructed, the disciple made offerings to the Buddhist monks who had completed their summer retreat; the disciple saw his mother freed, and danced with joy—thus, the first “Bon dance.” Duly, the disciple saw the many sacrifices his mother had made for him and was exceptionally grateful.

Most every Bon festival ends with Toro Nagashi, or the floating of paper lanterns. At the culmination, hundreds and thousands of paper lanterns, illuminated by interior candles, can be seen floating down rivers and streams. The belief is that ancestors’ spirits are symbolically returned to the world of the dead.

Come up! Come up for James Joyce and Bloomsday

First Bloomsday, 1954, from left: John Ryan, Anthony Cronin, Flann O’Brien, Patrick Kavanagh, Tom Joyce.SATURDAY, JUNE 16: Get ready …

Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed. A yellow dressinggown, ungirdled, was sustained gently behind him on the mild morning air.

He held the bowl aloft and intoned:
Introibo ad altare Dei.

Halted, he peered down the dark winding stairs and called up coarsely: Come up, Kinch. Come up, you fearful jesuit.

Solemnly he came forward and mounted the round gunrest. He faced about and blessed gravely thrice the tower, the surrounding country and the awaking mountains.

In 2009, actor actor Barry McGovern reads aloud from Ulysses atop James Joyce Tower on Bloomsday.And, there you go! Those opening lines already are saluting James Joyce’s classic Ulysses. That’s the way countless fans around the world salute James Joyce today—cracking open copies of Ulysses and reading the text aloud. The novel is set in Dublin on June 16, 1904, and was published as a complete novel 90 years ago (parts of it were serialized earlier). The tale begins on a real stone tower, where Joyce spent a very brief but tumultuous part of his life. And, once again, Joyce fans will gather at what is called James Joyce Tower to do the one thing all Joyce fans do on Bloomsday—read aloud from Ulysses.

Wikipedia’s overview of celebrations in Ireland, Hungary, Italy, Australia and the U.S. also includes this summary of the very first Bloomsday: Bloomsday (a term Joyce himself did not employ) was invented in 1954, on the 50th anniversary of the events in the novel, when John Ryan—artist, critic, publican and founder of Envoy magazine—and the novelist Flann O’Brien organized what was to be a daylong pilgrimage along the Ulysses route. They were joined by Patrick Kavanagh, Anthony Cronin, Tom Joyce (a dentist who, as Joyce’s cousin, represented the family interest) and AJ Leventhal (Registrar of Trinity College, Dublin). Ryan had engaged two-horse drawn cabs, of the old-fashioned kind, which in Ulysses Mr. Bloom and his friends drive to poor Paddy Dignam’s funeral. The participants were assigned roles from the novel. They planned to travel around the city through the day, visiting in turn the scenes of the novel, ending at night in what had once been the brothel quarter of the city, the area which Joyce had called Nighttown. The pilgrimage was abandoned halfway through, when the weary companions succumbed to inebriation and rancor at the Bailey pub in the city center, which Ryan then owned, and at which, in 1967, he installed the door to No. 7 Eccles Street (Leopold Bloom’s front door), having rescued it from demolition.


Looking for an observance around your home? Check with local libraries, Irish-themed organizations and institutions. Or, start your own—it only takes a circle of friends to begin the annual practice. (Email us if you do decide to organize something, even if it is small, at [email protected]) Events are scattered across the U.S., often in unlikely places. For the eighth straight year, the Ocean City Repertory Theater in Ocean City at the southern tip of New Jersey will present “Bloomsday,” a staged reading of Joyce. In the Cincinnati area, the Irish Heritage Center will host a Bloomsday party. In the Syracuse area, Le Moyne College is hosting Bloomsday. By far, the most impressive Bloomsday event in the U.S. is held at Symphony Space on Broadway in New York: Even the New Yorker magazine recommends this event as The Place to celebrate Bloomsday. Among the performers at this annual event will be Fionnula Flanagan (famous for many years in Ireland and best known to Americans, these days, as the mysterious matriarch in LOST), who will end the evening with a reading of Molly Bloom’s nighttime monologue.

Going for a Guinness Record: And here’s a literally “record-setting” Bloomsday-related event. The Irish Writers Centre in Dublin—home of the biggest Bloomsday bash each year—is attempting to set a new Guinness record to highlight Irish writers. The goal to break the record for Most Authors Reading Consecutively From Their Own Books over a 28-hour period from June 15-16. So, the shot at the record does not involve reading Joyce, per se. Rather, the goal is to highlight the continuing wealth of literary talent in Dublin. The current record was set at Berlin International Literature Festival and featured 75 authors. The Irish attempt at breaking the record is looking to up the ante with a confirmed 111 authors reading from their own works. Each author will read for 15 minutes from one of his or her works.

Bloomsday qualifies as a holiday in our column, but does it have religious significance?
As Joyce would have said: You be the judge! Of course, it is impossible for anyone to read much of Joyce and not find layer upon layer of specific religious reflection—as well as broadly spiritual meditations. Check out the Wikiquotes page listing passages often quoted from Ulysses. Perhaps reviewing those gems will inspire you to get a copy and read along this week!

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

Ulysses .



Anniversary: Happy bicentennial, Edward Lear!

SATURDAY, MAY 12: “There once was an old man from …” If those words remind you of limericks, then you have the artist, humorist and poet Edward Lear to thank! If you love nonsense words and fanciful funny tales that make you laugh—but defy logic—then you have Edward Lear to thank! Millions have chuckled over the countless renditions of The Owl and the Pussycat from music to cartoons to picture books—even one by Monty Python’s Eric Idle that now unfortunately is out of print—and, for that tale, we all have Edward Lear to thank!

We just marked the 160th birthday of the “real” Alice in Wonderland. Decades before Lewis Carroll would publish his Alice masterpiece, Edward Lear already was popular with English families for his crazy twists of verse and funny little ink sketches. But let’s dispell a myth about Lear: He actually was a talented artist who began his career making painstaking color illustrations of birds for the Zoological Society of London. British art critics wrote that he could rival the famous French-American wildlife painter James Audubon (1785-1851). Unfortunately, Lear suffered due to multiple disorders, ranging from epileptic seizures to failing eyesight. Nevertheless, even as he suffered, he maintained a defiant good humor.

If you care to read about Lear’s life, Wikipedia has a good overview. Earlier this week, we reported on the bicentennial of the poet Robert Browning’s birth. Unlike the hoopla surrounding Charles Dickens’ bicentennial, these other giants of English literature have few fans left to plan birthday bashes. Browning’s milestone will pass with little notice in the U.S. Unlike Browning, however, some Americans are paying attention to Lear. The Audubon Society website just published an overview of a bicentennial salute to Lear at Harvard. The Audubon post includes several other sketches of birds by Lear in preparations for finished works like the one with our story, today.


EDWARD LEARThe original odd couple has been celebrated in high-brow music by Igor Stravinsky, served as a folk-music staple for artists like Burl Ives and has been revived for contemporary audiences by Laurie Anderson. Because Lear’s work is now in public domain, there is no way to count the print versions, digital versions and cartoon versions. The characters are referenced in Disney’s Winnie the Pooh adventures and Mister Rogers reportedly included an owl and a pussycat in his beloved neighborhood as an homage to Lear’s tale.
To celebrate Edward Lear’s 200th birthday, here is that poem …


The Owl and the Pussy-Cat went to sea
In a beautiful pea-green boat:
They took some honey, and plenty of money
Wrapped up in a five-pound note.
The Owl looked up to the stars above,
And sang to a small guitar,
“O lovely Pussy, O Pussy, my love,
What a beautiful Pussy you are,
You are,
You are!
What a beautiful Pussy you are!”

Pussy said to the Owl, “You elegant fowl,
How charmingly sweet you sing!
Oh! let us be married; too long we have tarried:
But what shall we do for a ring?”
They sailed away, for a year and a day,
To the land where the bong-tree grows;
And there in a wood a Piggy-wig stood,
With a ring at the end of his nose,
His nose,
His nose,
With a ring at the end of his nose.

“Dear Pig, are you willing to sell for one shilling
Your ring?” Said the Piggy, “I will.”
So they took it away, and were married next day
By the Turkey who lives on the hill.
They dined on mince and slices of quince,
Which they ate with a runcible spoon;
And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand,
They danced by the light of the moon,
The moon,
The moon,
They danced by the light of the moon.

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