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Although I consider myself an atheist, my lack of faith always wavers around the High Holy Days. These are the sacred days of the Jewish calendar that extend from Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, to Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. During this period of about a week, as the joyous holiday leads into the somber one (“on Rosh Hashana it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed”), I am always visited by a memories of my childhood rabbi, an iconic figure, who embodies, for me, religion at its most beautifully contradictory.
More… “The Rabbi Sang”

Paula Marantz Cohen is Dean of the Pennoni Honors College and a Distinguished Professor of English at Drexel University. She is the host of  The Drexel InterView, a talk show broadcast on more than 400 public television stations across the country. She is author of five nonfiction books and six bestselling novels, including Jane Austen in Boca and Jane Austen in Scarsdale or Love, Death, and the SATs. Her essays and stories have appeared in The Yale ReviewThe American Scholar, The Times Literary Supplement, and other publications. Her latest novels are Suzanne Davis Gets a Life and her YA novel, Beatrice Bunson’s Guide to Romeo and Juliet.
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Did it ever strike you as a strange thing to drag a living tree once a year into your home and set it up to worship? If you are old enough, you may have seen decorating fashions come and go: fir cones painted in gold, cardboard adornments — preferably in red or green — artfully sculpted little angels, fragile glass balls in all colors. And you may have noted that the tree itself has transformed from real to artificial. Fiberglass trees in vivid colors, such as bright blue, are popular. There is a small rotating porcelain tree that plays Elvis Presley’s “Blue Christmas.” Presley himself decorated his ranch house with a nylon tree that had red ornaments and a revolving base tootling Christmas songs. Let’s leave it to others to discuss whether this is still a “real” tree or not. More… “Branching Out”

Bernd Brunner writes books and essays. His latest book (in German) is When Winters Were Still Winters: The History of a Season. His book Birdmania: Remarkable Lives with Birds will be published by Greystone Books in 2017. He is a fellow and nonfiction resident of the Carey Institute for Global Good in Rensselaerville, New York. His writing has appeared in Lapham’s Quarterly, The Paris Review Daily, AEON, TLS, Wall Street Journal Speakeasy, Cabinet, Huffington Post, Best American Travel Writing, and various German-language newspapers. Follow him on twitter at @BrunnerBernd.
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Ready for the future

Typically, I plan party food according to two basic rules: One, make it delicious, and two, present it in a discrete form that can be picked up and brandished in the course of energetic conversation without spraying crumbs or dip everywhere. But for New Year’s Eve, which I usually spend with a close cadre of friends, I am willing to break the rules for lucky foods. New Year’s style so often seems to highlight glitter and glamour: Sparkling beverages, spangle and shine on the clothes, twinkling lights — but the food is down-home, humble but filling and delicious. I simmer black-eyed peas to creaminess with a ham hock in a slow cooker. I leave the pork out of the collard greens in case of vegetarian guests, but I caramelize the onions with a smoky salt and deglaze with wine to make this humble green a little dressier for the occasion…. More…

Why has Christmas eaten all the other fall and winter holidays? I feel as though we’re disconnected from the particular joys other holidays have to offer, specifically the non-costume, reflection-on-mortality aspect of Halloween, and its month-later anodyne, Thanksgiving, which celebrates all the hard work of the harvest and begins the convivial atmosphere that helps us all get through the long dark nights of the winter. How can poetry help us get back to appreciating our other holidays for what they are? — Dr. Sunshine

 

From what I understand, Christmas dominates the winter holidays because it boosts our economy. In the 1930s, in the hope that it would pull us out of the Great Depression, Thanksgiving was even moved up from the last Thursday to the third Thursday in November so that people would have more time for Christmas… More…

There’s a grand old tradition of celebrating the Fourth of July through dissent. Of famously dissenting July Fourths, the 1976 Bicentennial comes to mind, when World’s Fair-style displays of pyrotechnics and nautical parades were joined by civil rights protests nationwide (including a celebrity-organized rally on the National Mall by the People’s Bicentennial Commission featuring Jane Fonda and Dr. Spock). The most notable has to be the first Fourth of July, in 1776, when the founding fathers finalized the Declaration of Independence, which was, itself, met with a certain amount of dissent. Plenty of Americans were still loyal to the British government. They used the Declaration as an opportunity to publish their own dissenting tracts, like that of Thomas Hutchinson, who served a short stint as colonial governor of Massachusetts. Hutchinson proclaimed the newly independent nation to be the insidious effort of a few rabble-rousing conspirators. He also called members of… More…

The Hindu calendar has 70 holidays, some lasting days or weeks. It is therefore almost impossible to visit India without having the opportunity to celebrate at least one of them.

I was especially lucky on my recent trip to experience the biggest and most sacred of them all — the Kumbh Mela, a three-month long festival that takes place every 12 years in the holy city of Haridwar.

From January 14 until April 28, millions of pilgrims from every caste gather at the Ganges River in hopes of washing away their sins. A dozen astrologically determined days are believed to be particularly auspicious; the Maha Shivratri is arguably the most significant. On this, “The Night of Shiva,” the Ganges is believed to offer endless blessings.

For most of the day, the Ganges is restricted for use by the sadhus — mystics, usually men,… More…

I’ve got to spend at least a week with my family this holiday season. How will I survive?

— Doug

You know what I hate? Every time I complain about something that bothers me, someone says casually, “Hey, why don’t you write a poem about it.” Like I say, “This jerk splashed a puddle of muddy water on me as I was walking to work!” or “I got laid off,” or “God, I feel really miserable, so miserable that I can’t feel my arms anymore,” and someone says, “You know what? That’d make a pretty good poem.” Like just now, I’m having trouble formatting this column, so I call a friend for help because I’m not computer savvy and I’m getting so frustrated and finally she tells me just to write a poem about it. Jeez, don’t give up on me, people!  Yes, I often turn my sufferings and annoyances… More…

Old World v. New

 

Thanksgiving is a solid holiday. It has its rituals, mostly related to food, and its stories, mostly about colonists cooperating with Native Americans that (to put it politely) play fast and loose with the historical record. Thanksgiving celebrates a foundational moment in the New World and is thus a most American holiday. Revolving around family and food, Thanksgiving brings feelings of comfort, warmth, and a pleasing if indefinite sense that everything in this country is as it should be.

Not so Halloween. Halloween is about masks and the supernatural. It is a nighttime affair that flirts with the unknown. Halloween deals with evil. It’s rooted in celebrations of the harvest and the feast days that come from various European traditions. It is also a death holiday, perhaps because it originally marked the time for the slaughter of livestock…. More…

Set the way for all rap jumps into the holiday.

Christmas music has never ranked highly among music aficionados. It exists, but no one likes to think about it much. Still, to create Christmas music is to belong in America. I don’t think this is a religious phenomenon. It is about homely feelings, about playing at tradition in a land that hasn’t any real ones. Americans imported their traditions from other lands and then went on to neglect them generally. Christmas is our pathetic, if charming, attempt at compensation.

The big question no one was asking in the 1980s was whether rap music could ever go that far. Was rap American enough to accomplish the Christmas song? When you do the Christmas song you are solid, you are in the club. Moreover, you are in the club to stay. A successful Christmas song will make it into a radio-cum-internet rotation that is beyond the vicissitudes of time. Think of “Christmas Wrapping” by The Waitresses. No one… More…