APRIL themes: Autism, Jazz, Poetry, Arab Americans and more

APRIL 2014: Americans will hear a lot this month about everything from jazz, poetry, Arab Americans, frogs and kites—to foods including Brussel sprouts and cabbage. Here are just some of the dozens of special month-long themes …


The Autism Society offers a resource page for the April observance, including the recommendation that supportive men and women display the puzzle-piece autism-awareness logo. The Society says: “The Autism Awareness Puzzle Ribbon is the most recognized symbol of the autism community in the world. Autism prevalence is now 1 in every 88 children in America. Show your support for people with autism by wearing the Autism Awareness Puzzle Ribbon—as a pin on your shirt, a magnet on your car, a badge on your blog, or even your Facebook profile picture—and educate folks on the potential of people with autism!”


The coolest news from Washington D.C., this April, is that the Smithsonian is kicking off Jazz Appreciation Month (JAM) by receiving jazz legend John Coltrane’s “Selmer Mark VI tenor saxophone, made in Paris about 1965, the year that A Love Supreme was released. The saxophone is one of three principal saxophones Coltrane played and will be on view in the Smithsonian’s American Stories exhibition.” (Unfortunately, the newly donated sax won’t make it onto public display until June.) Check news outlets in your part of the U.S. for special jazz programs this month. Look for events labeled with the appropriate acronym “JAM.” Plus, you may want to join the several thousand people who already have “liked” the Facebook page for Jazz Appreciation Month, a page that includes some photos of Contrane’s sax.


Nearly two decades ago, in 1996, The Academy of American Poets introduced National Poetry Month. The group was founded in 1934 and now gives away some of the most sought-after awards in poetry each year. The Wikipedia entry for the special month points out some of the past observances, including: the Empire State Building turning on blue lights in honor of the month, special White House programs and special distributions of poetry books. Look for regional events in our area through schools, libraries and bookstores. Here is the official 2014 National Poetry Month page, including a copy of this year’s poster, at the Academy site.


Relatively new in the long list of month-long themes is Arab American Heritage Month. Check schedules in your region for schools, libraries and community groups that may be scheduling programs. If you are coming to Michigan, visit the Arab American National Museum.

The following programs are just a handful of the many April themes promoted in various parts of the U.S.: Parkinson’s Awareness Month, Holy Humor Month, National Frog Month, National Kite Month—and many foods are honored, including Brussel Sprouts and Cabbage Month.

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

PENTECOST: Down the Holy Ghost Hole with doves and petals

SUNDAY, MAY 19: Doves descend, rose petals blanket church floors and flames flicker—all as Christian symbols of “The Birthday of the Church” nearly 2,000 years ago. For Western Christians, this is widely regarded as the second most significant holiday of the year: Pentecost.

Fifty days following Easter, Christians commemorate the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles, Jesus’s mother Mary and others in what tradition says was the Upper Room in Jerusalem. The second chapter of the Book of Acts puts it this way: “When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them.”

Yes, if you are a regular reader of this column, you know that this is the same “Pentecost” that is celebrated today as Shavuot, which is described in the previous holiday column in this series. Remember that Jesus and his followers were Jewish and followed Jewish religious customs, so naturally they would gather for this important traditional holiday. As Notre Dame historian Candida Moss just pointed out in a ReadTheSpirit interview, “Christians” didn’t widely emerge under that name until the end of the first century. What took them by surprise was this life-changing experience of the Holy Spirit on that day in Jerusalem.


According to Christian tradition, this explosion of spiritual energy included a spontaneous ability to talk in the languages of other visitors to Jerusalem, giving Jesus’s followers an opportunity to begin communicating their message to many people. Of course, as Acts tells the story—they seemed drunk to their neighbors in Jerusalem. People made fun of their wild new enthusiasm.

Then, the The Apostle Peter proclaimed that the event was a fulfillment of an ancient plan. Acts says he declared: “Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say. These people are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning! No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days, God says,I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams.‘”


From its earliest days, Pentecost was a time to commemorate baptisms in the Western Christian Church; the nickname “Whitsun” or “Whitsunday” was soon attached to Pentecost, to signify the wearing of white. The nickname “Whit Sunday” remains in England today, where Whit Walks continue to take place and the processions often include brass bands and girls in white. In some areas of England, Morris Dancing and cheese rolling are popular Pentecostal activities. Outside of select English regions of the world, however, vestments, banners and décor bear a vibrant red color. Confirmations are celebrated, hanging banners declare the fire and joy of the Holy Spirit and many lay people wear red clothing to church. (Learn more about the Catholic view of the Holy Spirit from the Global Catholic Network.)


Sicilian Pentecost vigils remarkably illustrate the Holy Spirit’s tongues of fire, as thousands of red rose petals are thrown from galleries over the congregation; modern practice has moved toward the stringing of hundreds of origami doves from the ceiling. (Get more information, and customs, at Fish Eaters.) In the Middle Ages, however, cathedrals and churches in Western Europe were built for this very purpose in that an architectural feature known as a Holy Ghost Hole was cut into the roof. (Wikipedia has details.) Symbolically, the Holy Ghost Hole allowed the Holy Spirit to descend upon the congregation at any given time, although at Pentecost the hole was adorned with flowers and a dove was lowered into the church. A wooden dove still descends over congregations in some regions, and Holy Ghost Holes can be seen in several European churches and cathedrals today.


Due to the events of Pentecost, many Christians now refer to this day as the “Birthday of the Church.” Brass ensembles and trumpets bring to mind the mighty winds of the Holy Spirit, while Scripture is popularly read in multiple languages. Pentecost Monday is a public holiday in much of Europe and some African nations.

Because of the East-West difference in dating Easter this year, Eastern Orthodox Christians will observe Pentecost on June 23.

(Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion, spirituality, interfaith news and cross-cultural issues.)

EARTH DAY: Add spirit to the world’s largest secular holiday

MONDAY, APRIL 22: What began as a progressive political movement spearheaded by Wisconsin’s Sen. Gaylor Nelson in 1970 is today a worldwide movement with deep spiritual connections. The Earth Day Network welcomes religious participation, explaining: “Faith leaders have been a driving force behind the most important and successful social movements. We encourage all people of faith across the globe to join us on Earth Day this April as we show the world The Face of Climate Change.”


The Earth Day Network, which is the global hub of this annual event, offers a wide array of faith-based resources:
For Congregations: The Network provides sample sabbath invitations, plus a 1-page bulletin insert for use at weekend worship.
Earth Stewardship: Convenient links will take you to statements of concern for the Earth from a host of religious groups. Need some inspiring material to carry with you into your congregation? You’ll find plenty of choices from that online starting point.
The Face of Climate Change: Here’s the portal to the big 2013 theme called “The Face of Climate Change.” This is a grassroots opportunity for anyone to add to the global effort by uploading photos of environmental change in your part of the planet. The invitation says: “Help us personalize the massive challenge climate change presents by taking a photo and telling your story. How has climate change impacted you? What are you doing to be part of the solution?”


Environmental activists began brainstorming the idea behind Earth Day in the late 1960s, leading to the first Earth Day in 1970. (Wikipedia has details.) While that first Earth Day drew some 20 million American participants mainly associated with schools and colleges, today’s observance spans 192 countries and gathers approximately 1 billion volunteers.

The Earth Day Network, founded in 1993, launched the concept into a new dimension, organizing large-scale, international events such as The Canopy Project, which pledges to plan 10 million trees in impoverished areas within the next five years. True to its grassroots beginnings, the Earth Day Network launched The Canopy Project to combat land degradation, energy loss and pollution in impoverished communities—one tree at a time. Of course, anyone can plant a tree on Earth Day, and anywhere. Today, original Earth Day organizer Dennis Hayes calls the observance “the largest secular holiday in the world.”

Find out what the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is doing for the holiday by checking out its site.


With a rapidly growing population and the ability to produce organic crops on a massive scale, Earth Day Network is turning to India as a major player in protecting our planet.

“India is poised to become the world’s largest supplier and consumer of certified organic foods,” reported the CEO of a major group of companies in India. “The farmers across the country are keen observers and are learning from each other about the benefits of richer soil, richer crops and richer pockets!”

Earth Day Network launched a permanent India Program in 2010, and is preparing the next generation by helping teachers incorporate environmental education into their curricula. Earth Day Network-India coordinated more than 1,000 events across India last year, with more than 30 million participants. This year, the organization is reaching out to Indian women with a Go Organic Garden Party, encouraging the citizens who make 85 percent of consumer choices to buy organic. Earth Day Network also works with top women leaders in India to create a network that would promote women’s roles in creating a green economy.


Engineers may design eco-friendly energy sources and leaders support a “green economy,” but Earth Day Network insists it’s everyday people—those who live sustainably by conserving resources, recycling, buying organic produce and performing other individual acts—who truly make a difference on a global scale.

Just take it from Ria Chhabra, a 16-year-old near Dallas whose school project on fruit flies and organic produce garnered international attention and the assistance of university labs. (Read the article in the New York Times.) Want more ideas for young people? Kids can access Earth Day crafts and recipes at Kaboose.

Earth Day Network also coordinates and inspires several events across the U.S., which includes the Earth Month Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math Fair (STEM Fair); the Environmental Film Festival; and the Green Fashion Show. The STEM Fair was underwritten by NASA, Grant Thornton, Chobani and Copia.

(Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion, values and cross-cultural issues.)

Holi: The clouds of colored powder fly far from India now!

WEDNESDAY, MARCH 27: Those flying clouds of colored powder aren’t limited to India, anymore. In recent years, Holi color-fests have become a sensation on college campuses across the U.S.—and celebrations are popping up in other American communities as well. What’s not to enjoy? It’s officially spring. We just passed the equinox. So, why not head outdoors with a bunch of friends and let loose until everyone looks like a human kaleidoscope!

Known alternatively as the Festival of Colors, Holi officially ushers in spring for millions in India, Nepal and in growing numbers of other regions worldwide. Holi rolls around each year despite the weather, but this year India is hot already. In fact, forecasters predict higher Holi temperatures this year than most Indians have seen in a decade!

Festivities kicked off in the cool of the evening last night, with Holika Dahan—the en masse lighting of bonfires. Hindu legend calls for the bonfires based on the story of Holika, the sister of a demon king and the demon king’s son, Prahlada. According to legend, the demon king demanded that everyone worship him instead of the proper gods—yet his son Prahlada was a fervent devotee of Vishnu and refused to worship his father. Despite multiple attempts to kill Prahlada, the demon king could not succeed. Finally, the king ordered Prahlada to sit on a fire with Holika, the “fireproof” demoness. Once the fire started, Prahlada emerged unharmed, while Holika burned. Today, Hindus honor this legend with bonfires and Holika Dahan prayers.


Online updates buzzed over the past week about whether Holi 2013 should fall on Wednesday or Thursday this year. Priests and astrologers debated their calculations. The Times of India features the details of this complex —and continuing—discussion.

HOLI: Many customs; changing customs

Once the sun rises, the bonfires of Holika Dahan fade away and the joyous spirit of Holi ignites. Colored powders fill the air in nearly every region of India, as everyone—young and old, rich and poor—celebrates together. In Western India, a pot of buttermilk is strung high above the street in a tantalizing bid to young boys who may attempt to reach it and break the pot open. The boy who reaches the pot is named Holi King, in remembrance of the playful ways of Krisha. Another link between Krishna and the colored powders of Holi: It’s said that Krishna envied the fair complexion of Radha, and Radha’s mother teasingly suggested that Krishna should color Radha’s face.

For 2-16 days, depending on the region, caste systems evaporate and everyone takes part in Holi festivities together. Even widows, traditionally cast off in Indian communities and often living in seclusion, will participate in Holi this year. Read more in this Huffington Post column.


Following longstanding customs, powders used in Holi came from natural sources and supposedly had medicinal qualities believed to play a role in warding off various ills that came with spring. However, as the population swelled in urban areas, natural sources became unavailable, rendering the need for synthetic powders. These products, rather than having soothing powers, often were toxic. Problems included lead poisoning, temporary blindness and skin irritation. Now, advocacy groups and public-health officials encourage a more careful selection of powders for the holiday.


Holi may be a fun excuse to frolic and behave immaturely, but more women are reporting on the darker side of such carelessness: violence against the vulnerable. While small group Holi celebrations can be fun, the “excuse” for some men to take the gaiety too far has led activists to warn women about the potential dangers of the event. Social workers and support groups are calling on women to speak up this year, pushing awareness so that everyone can work together toward a safer, more enjoyable Holi.

Want some fun at home? This family-friendly website offers ideas for preschoolers, with links for older kids, too.