Friday, November 30, 2012

Four Thousand Years of Christmas

Four Thousand Years of Christmas

A lot of people feel conflicted this time of year.  Because the period from Thanksgiving through Christmas to New Year’s Day involves more traditional elements than other, the sights and sounds and scents and flavors evoke our pasts more than any other season.  And depending on how you feel about the present, and on your inflated or deflated impressions of your past, I can see how people can feel conflicted and sometimes depressed! 

Today, I’d like to offer a different view of the season - one based on our Seventh Principle – the one about the interconnected web of life.  Most of us interpret that as referring to how we, as a species, interact with the rest of the natural world.  But another interpretation is to consider how we, as a contemporary culture, connect to those cultures before us.(and after us).  There is no better time of year to consider these connections than the Christmas season.  Most of the practices we engage in today connect us to people 500, 2000, and even 4000 years ago.  Looking at the season this way – as a window on long ago, shifts the focus away from our childhoods and ourselves to embrace a past much longer, deeper, and richer. 

First, I’ll talk about those celebrations that derive from ancient agricultural festivals, then I’ll talk about Christmas Day itself, and finally, I’ll talk about how the Protestants tried to ban Christmas and who you have to thank for celebrating it at all!

Sunday, November 25, 2012

#2: How Religious Were Our First Four Presidents?

#2:  How Religious Were Our Founding Fathers? The First Four Presidents and Ben Franklin

Listen to the entire sermon here.

George Washington, 1795:  “In politics, as in religion, my tenets are few and simple; the leading one of which, and indeed that which embraces most others, is to be honest and just ourselves, and to exact it from others; meddling as little as possible in their affairs where our own are not involved.  If this maxim was generally adopted, wars would cease and our swords would soon be converted into reap-hooks and our harvests be more peaceful, abundant, and happy.” 

John Adams 1812:  “There is no special Providence for us.  We are not a chosen people that I know of.  Admire and adore the Author of the telescopic universe, love and esteem the work, do all in your power to lessen ill and increase good; but never presume to comprehend.”   

Thomas Jefferson, 1819:  Were I to be the founder of a new sect, I would call them Apriarians, and after the example of the bee, advise them to extract the honey of every sect.”  
In this half of this sermon I’ll cite quotes indicating the religiosity of our first four presidents, (and Ben Franklin) but first I want to say something about the use of language and cultural references in any public discourse.

The main point of Protestantism was that each believer could and should read the Bible for himself or herself instead of relying on the interpretation of a priest.  So the religion walked hand in hand with literacy training.  I am sure that the illiteracy rate in America today is higher than it was in 1780. So while books were expensive, every home that could afford even one book owned a Bible.

Wealthier, educated people also studied and owned classic works of historians and philosophers.  So if you wanted to make a point in metaphorical language to a rich person, you might cite Cicero or Thucydides, but if you wanted to speak to a broad demographic, what was the one repository of cultural reference that the entire population recognized? The Bible. 

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

#1: How Religious Was Colonial America?

How Religious were our Founding Fathers?
Part 1:  The Colonies and States Themselves  (this posting)

Part 2:  The First Four Presidents and Benjamin Franklin ( a separate posting)

Listen to the entire sermon here.
In public discourse and private conversations, I hear people bandy about opinions like, “we were founded as a Christian country” to justify Christmas trees in front of City Hall and prayers at the beginning of each legislative season or “a Judeo-Christian country” to warrant the Ten Commandments in front of courthouses.  On the other hand, we also proclaim a heritage of “separation of church and state” and point out that our national Constitution is a wholly secular document, even more so than many state constitutions.   How do we reconcile the two? 

How religious were our Founding Fathers?  How religious did they want our national or state institutions to be?  Those are two separate questions, and I’ll take them in reverse order, first talking about the religious context of the colonies, and then give some quotes and context for each of our first four presidents: Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison, along with Ben Franklin.  

The first point to note is that, of course the government was founded by Christians --the immigrants came from Europe, not Timbuktu.  More than Christian, though, our state and national governments were founded by Protestants.  99% of the immigrants were Protestant. 

As for “Judeo-Christian founding", though, this was no homogenious "kumbaya" Protestantism.  The dominant Protestant denominations of the time, Puritans in the north and Anglicans in the south, vigorously and sometimes violently restricted the rights of Catholics and Jews and Protestants they did not recognize as legitimate denominations, like the Quakers, Baptists, Universalists, as well as those who professed no religion at all.   Catholics and Jews and non-theists or non-Trinitarians were refused the right to public office, to vote, and in some places, to own real estate or businesses for more than a century in 11/13 colonies and early states. 

Virginia, for a while, had a law that it would execute any Jesuit!

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Northern Lights and 14 Feet of Snow

Solar storms have been active this winter, and we were alert to the possibility of seeing the aurora borealis.  At 5:45 am, Bryan awakened me to see them.  I was surprised to see how much sky they covered and how quickly they moved across it.  We bundled on jackets and hats as we shifted from the front porch to the back, and then peered up and out from the side windows, too.   The color was a pale green with an inner light.  The closest analogy I can think of, and one that seems like an unlikely oxymoron, is of a grass, hula skirt.  The biomorphic shape did indeed seem to dance, and its general shape changed as it “turned.”  But as I watched more closely, I noticed sinuous lines within the larger shape moving too.  Well worth the wakeup call (and I don't say that very often).

Our first night back this winter, the temperature dropped to +3 degrees F, but the wood stove slowly warmed the cabin, and with it, started to thaw a motley array of water containers we had partially filled with filtered lake water before the lake froze over.  Smaller bottles ensure some drinking water the second day after arrival.  Larger jugs of frozen potable water take a few days to melt.  In the meantime, we shovel snow into a pot to melt on the wood stove. 
Since snow melts to water at a 10:1 volume ratio, it takes several days to accumulate any volume significant enough to clean the cabin, laundry or ourselves very well.  So, I turn my initial attention the first two days to cooking, which makes the cabin seem warmer, just by the scent.  I made two loaves of bread and whipped up some onion dip, hummus, and sundried tomato-olive tapenade for handy snacks.  Since we don't have an indoor refrigerator, I store items that can freeze, in a cooler on the back porch (so the scavengers can't get it). Other items, like eggs, dips, and cheese, I store in the coolest corner of the cabin, which is by the front door.
View from the porch

Out house and shed foreground, shower house background

The second afternoon, we took some time out to survey the property by a snow shoe hike.