Anniversary: Happy bicentennial, Robert Browning!

MONDAY, MAY 7: Having just helped the world celebrate Charles Dickens’ bicentennial, we can’t ignore the 200th birhday of Dickens’ friend and compatriot, Robert Browning. (Care to look back to our Dickens’ coverage? In Part 1, we marked the anniversary. In Part 2, we published an overview of the best recent Dickens’ apps and books.)

Unfortunately, you’ll be hard pressed to find a Browning anniversary party anywhere, a fact that at least a few British commentators are bemoaning. So, why even note his birthday here?

Browning is most famous for marrying and freeing Elizabeth Barrett. Already a famous poet in his own right, Browning fell in love with the poet Elizabeth Barrett even though she was an invalid and was forbidden to marry by her overly controlling father. Their secretly conducted courtship and eventual marriage freed Elizabeth to publish some of her best work—and Robert published even more of her poetry after her death. Without Robert’s strong encouragement, it’s fair to say that Elizabeth wouldn’t have had her considerable influence on world literature.

Their love became a movie, several times over. Although none of the versions have been re-released for Browning’s bicentennial—surely a missed opportunity—there were two classic Hollywood versions and a BBC made-for-TV version in the 1980s. All were titled, “The Barretts of Wimpole Street.”

Robert Browning popularized the Pied Piper. The 500-year-old fairy tale was retold by Goethe and the Grimm brothers, but it was Robert Browning and the dazzling illustrator Kate Greenaway who brought the tale into children’s bedrooms across Britain and around the English-speaking world.

Want Browning for free? Project Gutenberg has an online version of the Browning-Greenaway book. Gutenberg also offers other  Browning works that are free for e-readers. If you own a Kindle, Amazon’s Kindle store provides most of Browning’s work either free or at very low cost.
Warning: Browning’s friends had yet to encounter the complex world of 20th-Century poetry. In their era, they liked to joke about the complexity of his verse. Many claimed they couldn’t understand it.

Great lines from Robert Browning on his Centennial

In his prime, Browning was celebrated by other great writers for turning such phrases in his verse as: “The truth is within ourselves;” and “What Youth deemed crystal, Age finds out was dew;” and “God is the perfect poet, Who in his person acts his own creations.”

For all of his infamous complexity, he also rendered crystal clear images like this:

The year’s at the spring,
And day’s at the morn;
Morning’s at seven;
The hill-side’s dew-pearl’d;
The lark’s on the wing;
The snail’s on the thorn;
God’s in His heaven—
All’s right with the world!

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

Anniversary: Happy bicentennial, Charles Dickens!

Charles Dickens in wax at Madame Tussaud’s Museum in London. Photo in public domain“Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.”
Charles Dickens’ opening of David Copperfield

TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 7: If you grew up loving “A Christmas Carol” or one of Dickens’ longer novels—count yourself among the millions celebrating the 200th birthday of Charles Dickens! On this day in 1812, Charles Dickens was born in Kent in southeast England.

Dickens survived a childhood in which his family was impoverished. His father’s poor choices with money forced him into debtors’ prison—an experience echoed in the character of Mr. Micawber in “David Copperfield” (played by W.C. Fields in one film version of that semi-autobiographical novel). As a young boy, Dickens was forced to work in the kind of inhumane factory conditions that were later described in several of his novels. (Wikipedia has details.)

Dickens’ initial ticket out of poverty was his remarkable gift as a rapid reporter of legal news. He became London’s top expert at taking shorthand transcripts of legal proceedings for daily news reports. Thriving in that cut-throat realm of breaking news, Dickens also fine-tuned his eye and ear to capture prose portraits of the city’s most eccentric characters. He understood compelling stories and wrote rapidly. From these talents, a literary giant was born.

Dickens completed his first full book, “The Pickwick Papers,” in his mid-20s, and with it he earned an immediate fame that never dimmed. Dickens identified with the downtrodden and everyday working people, and his public readings and personal visits gained him immense popularity. Dickens published his stories in weekly or monthly installments, thereby keeping readers on edge. The author never forgot his own formative experiences; he even engaged in public campaigns on behalf of social issues he championed. In one case, he pushed for a law that would allow working people a day off each week.

Eventually, Dickens toured the world, performing his novels on stage in readings that were so strenuous, he sometimes collapsed after a reading. In the U.S., he traveled all the way to the Midwest along the Ohio River. Many countries around the world, including Switzerland, are marking the bicentennial with special programs and exhibits marking Dickens’s travels.


Anyone in search of an event for Dickens’s bicentennial won’t be limited in choices: London’s Westminster Abbey will host a Charles Dickens ceremony today; the Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall will visit the Charles Dickens Museum in the morning hours (the museum will also have a bicentenary birthday cake and free cupcakes for visitors—learn more at; a 24-hour reading marathon will be followed on Twitter through 24 countries, from Australia to Zimbabwe; and a new Dickens Newspaper will be launched in print and as an iPad App. (Get the scoop from USA Today.) Penguin Classics will announce today the results of a nationwide poll to discover America’s favorite Dickens character; a museum in Switzerland will exhibit “The Mysteries of Charles Dickens” through March 4; and events to recreate Dickens’s first and immensely popular U.S. tour will take place in West Virginia.

A full website is devoted to Dickens, his works and his bicentennial:


• “A Christmas Carol” has been adapted for film since the earliest years of cinema; last December, “Carol” appeared as a semi-animated iPad App.

• All of Dickens’s major novels were adapted for the stage during his lifetime.

• More than 320 movies have been inspired by Dickens’s works.

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

International Observance: Retain Kwanzaa’s seven principles

Photo in public domainMONDAY, DECEMBER 26: Jews worldwide continue lighting candles in the eight-day festival of Hanukkah that began last week. And, today, millions of Africans light their own candles for a uniquely Pan-African holiday: Kwanzaa. Created in 1966 by Maulanga Karenga, Kwanzaa brings African culture into the holiday season with seven candles representing seven principles of African heritage and delicious feasts of traditional African food. (Wikipedia has details.) Each year, Kwanzaa begins Dec. 26 and lasts seven days, until Jan. 1. As Kwanzaa has evolved, is has become more of a complement to Christmas—as opposed to an alternative—yet still retains its meaningful name, which is Swahili for “first fruits (of the harvest).” (Get interactive information from Today, Kwanzaa is celebrated in the U.S., Canada, France, Great Britain, Jamaica and Brazil.

Few specific rituals exist for Kwanzaa, although its three colors—black, red and green—are nearly always associated with the observance. Each day of Kwanzaa owns its own African principle, often marked by a black, red or green candle:

• Unity: To maintain unity of family, community, nation and race;

• Self-determination: To define and speak up for oneself;

• Collective Work and Responsibility: To maintain community and help solve others’ problems;

• Cooperative Economics: To create and maintain one’s own business, and share profit;

• Purpose: To work together in building and developing community;

• Creativity: To always do the most one can and leave anywhere better than one found it;

• Faith: To believe in one’s family, people and culture.

Other symbols common to Kwanzaa include corn, a kinara (candle holder), a communal cup, a flag and pieces of traditional African art. Gift giving has also become popular during Kwanzaa. (Learn about Kwanzaa and African heritage with crafts, coloring pages and related activities at Kaboose and Scholastic.)

Two years ago, Maya Angelou narrated the world’s first documentary about Kwanzaa, entitled “The Black Candle.” For information about sharing “The Black Candle” with your community or group, visit the film’s website; available packages, which vary by group size and purpose, include learning materials, film copies and fundraising ideas.

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

Debut: New Twilight film is nationwide cultural celebration

The movie, Twilight—Breaking Dawn, Part 1, debuts.
Like Super Bowl Sunday, the debut weekends of major film series like Harry Potter and now Twilight, come complete with decorating, cuisine and party ideas. These mega-best-seller series are truly cultural waves that touch communities coast to coast. More than a thousand Twilight fans began camping out in Los Angeles last week, awaiting a special screening in LA early this week. Across most of America, the focus is on “midnight showings” timed at 12:01 a.m. Friday. Some theaters are planning to show earlier Twlight movies on Thursday evening—offering special package tickets to a “Twilight marathon.” If you’re interested, check on Twilight plans at theaters in your part of the country.


This cultural tidal wave is rolling aross the entire U.S.—not just LA and New York City. The Salt Lake Tribune reported that a brief public appearance by five of the cast members drew more than 1,000 mostly female fans. The SLTribune wrote: “More than 1,000 fans, most of them women and girls, screamed in delight Friday night (Nov. 11) at The Rail Event Center in downtown Salt Lake City, as five of the movie series’ cast—four relatives of undead teen Edward Cullen, and one member of the ruling Volturi clan—blew kisses from the stage and took questions from nervous teens.”

Adult women as well as teens are fans, according to various news stories. Gannett newspapers reports that “what started as an obsession for young girls has become a full-blown grown-up phenomenon.” Another report estimates that Twilight’s “fan base” is at least 40 percent adult women.


Here is our Quick-Start Guide to Twilight and enjoying Breaking Dawn. This summary of the first three novels was written by Jane Wells, author of Glitter in the Sun, a Twilight Bible-study book. Our Quick-Start guide brings Twilight fans quickly up to speed and lets newcomers catch up to enjoy the movie with friends who already are Twilight fans. Jane Wells’ 200-page book goes much further.
Consider starting a Twilight Bible-study group in your congregation, using Jane Wells’ new Glitter in the Sun. Her new book points out many connections between these popular stories and the Christian faith.


The widespread popularity of the novels and movies has turned Twilight party planning into big business. One way to plan a party is to order the official Breaking Dawn Standard Party Pack by Hallmark (shown in the photo with this story). However, there are lots of reasonably priced do-it-yourself ideas from Twilight fans. Tara Riley of the That-Creative-Mom blog posted a Twilight party column with several Twilight-themed recipes, including Twilight Black and White Cookies and Bella’s Red Velvet Dream Cake. The Twilight Fansite offers a few tips, including party game ideas. Hostess with the Mostess (HWTM) has a very popular set of make-it-yourself party ideas, inlcuding some cool party graphics from HWTM.


A week before the movie debut, thousands of news stories already carried bits and pieces of news about cast members, local fan events and preparations for the movie debut. Among the major stories:

The New York Times reports on Bella’s wedding dress. Of course everyone who has been following Twilight knows there’s a wedding in the new movie, but fans will want to know all the details of Bella’s dress. Summit Entertainment, the company behind the movies, “is betting that, as with other wedding gowns that have made it to the big screen, thousands of fans will want a copy of the dress for their own big day. To that end, Summit has taken the unusual step of licensing the design to a mass-market bridal retailer.”

Boston Globe looks at the composer of the haunting music—including Bella’s Lullaby—a soundtrack that now is familiar a familiar serenade in millions of movie fans’ minds.

Chicago Tribune explores how the long-running movie series has changed the lives of the cast.

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

International Observance: Mark Evolution Weekend

It’s the sixth annual Evolution Weekend for hundreds of congregations around the world today, as more and more people of faith are making a point of demonstrating that they see no need for a feud between science and religion.

We’ve got a terrific Science & Religion Resource:
For the bicentennial of Charles Darwin’s birthday in 2009, ReadTheSpirit began compiling this resource page about the issue that millions of Americans still regard as “Science vs. Religion.” Turns out, many religious leaders don’t think there needs to be such friction. Even Pope Benedict XVI talks about the truth of evolution.

Within that resource page you’ll find links to the official Evolution Sunday website and background on its forerunner, the Clergy Letter Project of 2004. Nearly 13,000 clergy have since signed on in support of evolution. In many places of worship, today’s event has become so popular that the evolution-themed and other science-related activities have spread far beyond the sermon.

Evolution Sunday—or Evolution Weekend, as it was renamed in 2008—is observed each year on the date(s) closest to the birthday anniversary of Charles Darwin, on Feb. 12. The first Evolution Sunday had less than 500 congregational participants, and by 2010, that number had increased to 850. (Read more in an article in Science and Relgion Today.) Numbers have dropped slightly for the 2011 Evolution Weekend, though, with only 642 places of worship signed on to mark the event.

Just what is it that makes Evolution Weekend so well received? Despite his own atheist beliefs, Clergy Letter Project founder Michael Zimmerman insists that the faithful don’t need to choose between science and religion. More than 100 sermons are available on the Clergy Letter Project site, and many include demonstrations of how science and religion go hand-in-hand. Even Pope Benedict XVI has been publicly voicing his support of evolution for years.

Tao, Buddhist, Confucian: Happy Chinese New Year!

THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 3: Get out your best clothing for the Chinese New Year of the Rabbit! And that just might be your gym shoes, this year, considering the stir Nike is causing with a couple of exclusive Year of the Rabbit shoes. One version that eventually will sell in the U.S. for about $180 debuts in China today with distinctive red and gold coloring for the holiday. A less-expensive design actually shows a rabbit hopping across the back of the shoes. And you thought American Christmas was overly commercialized!

For the next 15 days, China—along with Chinese populations living in other countries—will be celebrating with special foods, friendly visits and careful attention to ensuring good luck in the coming year. Post offices in Australia, Canada and the U.S. even issue a Chinese New Year stamp; and Chinatowns around the world decorate en masse. (Wikipedia has details.) Traditionally, Buddhists and Taoists welcome deities into their homes today, after visits to temples. In the home, altars and statues are cleaned thoroughly. For some Buddhists, today is also the birthday of Maitreya Bodhisattva.

The Chinese New Year (also known as “Spring Festival”) is based on the ancient Chinese lunisolar calendar, which means that time is balanced using both moon cycles and the seasons of the solar year. (The History Channel’s interactive site has more information.) Celebrate in your own home with recipes, kid craft ideas and more at Kaboose. Or, check out PBS Kids for online games related to the New Year. Hungry? Try a recipe for Sweet and Sour Chicken from AllRecipes.

Legend has it that a mythical beast called the Nian terrorized villagers until, one day, the Chinese people learned that it feared the color red. To this day, red is the most widely used color in Chinese New Year decorations. Each day of the lengthy New Year celebration holds a different purpose: on the second day, married daughters visit their birth parents and dogs’ birthdays are celebrated; on the fifth day, it is the birthday of the god of wealth; and on the 13th day, people eat vegetarian food to cleanse their systems of the overconsumption of food during the past couple of weeks.

Residents of Beijing have an extra reason to celebrate. (The Guardian, a UK publication, has a full article.) When the Chinese government attempted to control the terrible smog over Beijing recently, it cut pollution from coal burning and vehicle exhaust in half. The Chinese in Beijing will welcome a New Year with the city’s first month of consistent blue skies in a decade.

International Observance: Happy New Year!

Many Americans spend New Year’s Day watching the Tournament of Roses Football GameJANUARY 1: We wish you a “Happy New Year!”

The modern Gregorian calendar observes New Year’s Day on Jan. 1, but the roots of this tradition run back thousands of years. The ancient Romans used a calendar that marked the New Year on Jan. 1, too. It’s recorded that Julius Caesar himself established Jan. 1 as New Year’s Day in 46 BC. But Caesar didn’t originate that idea; the establishment of January as the first month of a New Year is credited to ancient pagans. (Wikipedia has details.) The god of gates and beginnings, Janus, had two faces—one facing forward and the other facing backward. While many think of Janus as a Roman god, his two-faced roots may reach back into the ancient Middle East. It’s clear that we have ancient pagan ancestors to thank for starting our year in January.

Fun and (Maybe) Frustration in Tournament of Roses

Many American families mark New Year’s Day with the Pasadena Tournament of Roses—it’s common to watch the Rose Bowl Game with friends or check out the Rose Parade on television. (If your kids are looking for something to do while you watch the game, check out Kaboose for craft and recipe ideas.)

Last month, the Pasadena Tournament of Roses announced a major redesigned its website to meet growing demand for an online experience of the parade. You can try to view the website here, but it’s repeatedly crashing on New Year’s Day due to all the fans wanting to see this new site.

Finally, a New Year’s Safety Tip to Guard Your Car

Just be sure to lock your car if you venture out to see a football game with friends today—USA Today reports that New Year’s Day has long been the most popular day of the year for auto thefts.