thanksgiving, black friday, and the start of the perverted holiday season

thanksgiving, black friday madness

“Shopping Christmas Presents” taken by Andreas Nilsson

If you look objectively at the evolution of what is referred to as the “holiday season” in the United States, especially with Thanksgiving and Black Friday, you’ll have to admit that some rather strange and even contradictory traditions have come into place over the years.

First, let’s look at the holiday of Thanksgiving itself. It evolved from harvest festivals held in Great Britain, and was supposed to have been based on the first Thanksgiving celebration held in the early 1600s in the American colonies—held either in New England or Virginia. The New England celebration was purportedly attended by many Native Americans, and people celebrate what was supposedly a peaceful and amicable relationship between the colonists and the First Nations people.

Native Americans look upon this celebration as a time of mourning. For this, like the landing of Columbus in the Americas in 1492, was a prelude to centuries of genocide in the Americas. Even today, Native Americans suffer from poverty, oppression, and displacement, and struggle to hold on to cultural traditions that once united people within the various First Nations.

But the Thanksgiving as celebrated by most Americans literally whitewashes this history. It reinforces an image of benign character and generosity of European-born Americans that obfuscates the bloodshed they inflicted on millions of First Nations people. For such whitewashing to become synonymous with the start of the Christian holiday season is strange. Certainly it is not in keeping with what Christ taught.

But Black Friday is even stranger. Black Friday first got its name in the 1950s because of workers calling in sick the day after Thanksgiving, and also in response to the traffic on this busy shopping day. The phrase gained popularity in the 1980s. While the modifier “Black” prior to any day usually described a calamity, retailers in the 80s tried to redefine it by sharing the observation that most retailers operated at a financial loss for most of the year (in the red), but starting the day after Thanksgiving they would start making a profit (in the black). President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved the Thanksgiving holiday from the last Thursday in November to the fourth Thursday in November in order to allow retailers to have a longer Christmas season.

But Black Friday as it exists today is the culmination of a gift exchange tradition gone mad. The benign act of gift-giving has become perverted into a mad dash of materialism, with gift-giving eclipsing almost all other aspects of Christmas. This mad dash has literally caused injuries and deaths in the United States. In 2008, shoppers pushing to get into a Walmart at its opening trampled a worker to death and injured several other employees and bystanders. Literally hundreds of people stepped on or around this worker, and made it difficult for fellow employees to get to the worker to help him. Even when police and emergency service people arrived, they also had great difficulty getting to the worker, as crowds single-mindedly continued to stream into the store. A website has been keeping a tally of deaths and injuries in the U.S.

Self-described Christians complain about a “war on Christmas” because it has become customary to say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” to take into account the fact that not everyone celebrates Christmas. These “war on Christmas” zealots would likely be offended if a Pagan came up to them in May and wished them a happy Beltaine. But these so-called Christians cannot see far enough to the end of their noses to realize that many non-Christians would be justifiably offended if Christmas was pushed on them. Such alleged Christians don’t want to see this because they believe that acknowledging the legitimacy of any religion besides Christianity is itself an attack on Christians. Yet these same people don’t complain about Black Friday—they just complain if the Walmart store in which people are being trampled has a sign saying “Happy Holidays.”

It is clear that the holiday season has been tainted by Thanksgiving and Black Friday, and as such, it would make sense to observe these days differently from the way they are celebrated now. Many Native American tribes observe the day as a “National Day of Mourning.” They also have suggestions for those wanting to observe the day in this way.

As for Black Friday, an alternative called “Buy Nothing Day” evolved in Vancouver, Canada in 1992. The campaign has been promoted by and is now celebrated in 60 countries. It advocates literally buying nothing on Black Friday as a protest against the rampant materialism of our overconsumptive society and advocating a simpler and more people-connected way of living. People can mark the day by staying home with friends and family, going out and visiting nature, giving away one’s excess possessions to thrift stores or the needy, or participating in protests against the destructiveness of the modern consumerist lifestyle. Many people participating in Buy Nothing Day see this as a means of restoring the true spirit of Christmas and the holiday season in general—a time of reflection, and a time of connection with others.

Given that the Western materialistic consumer lifestyle is causing major destruction on this planet, Buy Nothing Day is an important observation to make. It can also be an important component of a truly spiritual holiday season, regardless of one’s religion.

The Earth Epic Calendar sets the change of the year at the time of the Winter Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere (Summer Solstice in the Southern Hemisphere), which currently is around December 21. Pagans celebrate the Winter Solstice, or Yule, at the same time. Buddhists celebrate Bodhi Day on December 8 to mark the day when Buddha reached enlightenment. Hindus in the United States created Pancha Ganapati, a five day festival that serves as a Hindu alternative to Christmas. (The festival is celebrated in honor of the Hindu deity Ganesha.) Jews celebrates Hanukkah sometime between late November and early January.

It makes sense to look at the holidays as a time of reflection, as it is often after the last harvest when there is little work to do in the fields in the Northern Hemisphere. The day of the Winter Solstice has the shortest day and the longest night. It is an excellent time to reflect on the past year and think about the coming year, regardless of one’s religion. The commercialism that has taken over much of the spirit of these holidays is temporary, and will eventually burn out as resource depletion puts the brake on this consumerist culture. These days can truly be silent nights and holy nights if we allow them to be.

practical ways to connect spiritually without religion

Pexels / Pixabay

We engage in spiritual practice to remind ourselves of and connect ourselves with our higher selves, that which we consider to be greater than ourselves, and/or the source of truth, life, beauty and wonder.  What this spiritual practice would look like depends on the individual. There are many practical ways to connect spiritually without religion.

The Baha’i Faith, for example, requires its followers to offer prayers a certain number of times per day. It offers some flexibility on the number of prayers, but followers must select the prayers from one prayer book. Those who personally feel moved by the prayers will benefit, but those whose hearts are not stirred by those words—however beautiful they might be—should not be judged or criticized. Everyone has had different life experiences and it should not be surprising that the same things won’t necessarily move everyone’s heart.

It is good for us to keep the Divine in our hearts as often as possible, and the ways to do so vary as much as there are people on the Earth. For those who haven’t succeeded in keeping the Divine in their heart at all times, below is a list of ways that some people keep the divine in their hearts, and perhaps It may even stimulate further ideas. This is definitely not an exhaustive list.

  • Meditate by emptying your mind of all thought

  • Meditate by listening to your breathing

  • Meditate by maintaining complete awareness of the world around you. Notice every detail from the largest to the smallest.

  • Go out into nature and notice everything around you. Close your eyes and hear everything around you.

  • Prayer

  • Lighting a candle and staring at the flame

  • Watching the sunrise or sunset

  • Watching the stars at night—especially when the stars are not obscured by city lights

  • Closely observing the behaviors of a pet or a loved one

  • Watching children play

  • Find the quietest place possible and enjoy its silence

  • Listening to beautiful music

  • Reading poetry

  • Reading books on spirituality or religions

  • Wearing something as a symbol of your spirituality

  • Creating an altar with symbols of things that are deeply meaningful to you

  • Putting up art in your living space that inspires you spiritually

  • Playing music that inspires you spiritually

spirituality without religion in the future

geralt / Pixabay

Many people cannot relate to the spiritual practices of any current religion.  They certainly should not be expected to. Many people long for a connection with the Divine but do not necessarily feel it with the religions present in their time and geographical area. It is understandable that one might not feel that connection. Some people affiliate with a religion since it seems to be the easiest way to associate with the Divine. But for a lot of people such affiliations ultimately feel empty.  As such, they seek a meaningful spirituality without religion.

So how can the spiritual practitioner wanting feel a connection with the Divine do so without religion? To understand that, its important to understand why we yearn for spiritual connection.

One important aspect of spirituality is to feel the connection with something greater than ourselves. It’s easy to feel disempowered by the institutions that dominate our current lives. But a photograph of the Earth from space, a beautiful sunset, or a spectacular view of the stars at night (untainted by urban light pollution) can help people understand that there is a bigger picture that we belong to. Being able to see this bigger picture gives us a greater sense of purpose, as well as clarity as to why we are here.

Another purpose of spirituality is to contribute to an ethical framework from the broader big picture perspective. This ethical guidance also comes from realizing that we are part of a whole much greater than ourselves. This bigger picture perspective helps us see the impacts of our actions more clearly.

A third important purpose of spirituality is to help us see the beauty of the present moment, even if at first glance it might seem dark, stark, or even a living hell. Being able to see the beauty of the present moment and have gratitude for it, even when it is difficult, can help with one’s sense of purpose and bring joy and celebration to places where it might not have been perceived as possible before.

In the absence of religion telling you what to think, it is important to turn within and think about what it means to be in contact with the Divine, what one’s own ethical framework would look like and how to connect with the beauty of the present moment.  Not relying on an institution to guide us means that we can be open to the quieter whispers that can beckon us from our surroundings, and new messages from unexpected sources.  Practical suggestions for connecting with the Divine can be found in the next blog post.

All these things contribute to a life of purpose. Each of us is here for a reason, though we might not be cognizant of what that reason is. Life can often show us clear signs, but we also need to be open to “course corrections” via other clear signs that might contradict what we had previously thought was our purpose.

religion and spirituality in the future

TechLine / Pixabay

As the world transitions to a new period that will likely be without the modern conveniences that have defined this era, what should religion and spirituality in the future look like?

An important difference between religion and spirituality as practiced nowadays is that many, if not most religions are now providing narratives that have become alternative realities.  People have been structuring their lives around these alternative realities.  This might not have been true of these religions when they were new, and even today, it’s not true of many people following these religions. But centuries of human imperfection—including the desire to seek power over others—have turned these religions into alternative realities around which people structure their lives.

These alternative reality narratives seek to explain why they believe that well-being of the world depends on as many people converting to their religion as possible, as if this was the will of God and the Universe. Often, the effort to grow the the religion has eclipsed the spiritual lessons to be garnered from the writings of the religion, or have replaced the religion altogether.

Now and in the coming ages, people should feel free to practice whatever religion that enables them to feel the closest to the Divine, and–for the most part–in whatever way they choose. If people find comfort and derive strength from the writings and practices of their religion, and help them feel closer to the Divine, then generally, it is good for them to stick to whatever gives them strength and inspiration.

But the religious inspiration needs to be reality-based. The practice of the religion needs to inspire people to connect the Divine as part of their efforts to address the challenges of the present, instead of an alternative reality. If, instead, the religion casts the present moment in a narrative that changes the present reality and the challenges that we must respond to, then religion can only serve to undermine humanity’s progress.

The question, “What would Jesus do in this situation today?”–or Muhammad, Buddha, or others—is certainly appropriate, given that these prophets offered a lot of valuable guidance as to how to respond to the challenges of their respective times,. Much of what they did and said in their time on Earth is relevant to many (but not all) of the challenges we face today. However, we must always be asking ourselves if our answer to that question is truly inspired by the Divine or by our own prejudices.

are you kind?

Aleksandr1982 / Pixabay

These are strange times.  These are scary times.  This is a time when anything can happen and a lot of it is not pretty.  Things are going to change rapidly and drastically, and we won’t always know where the storm will strike next or how violent that round of the storm will be.  Our world is turning upside down and people will be running about and reacting to the moment. In such moments, when people are tested to their limits, their reaction may not be what you want it to be.  The test for all of us during those moments is really going to be the answer to this simple question:  Are you kind?

It’s easy to lash out and throw negativity at others when you are being bombarded with negativity yourself.  But you must not.  If you remember anything else you ever read anywhere, remember these things:

It is the only thing that will get us through these trying times.
It is the only thing that will get us through these trying times.
It is the only thing that will get us through these trying times.
And just in case I haven’t emphasized it enough, it is the only thing that will get us through these trying times.

Tune in with whatever can help you remember that.  One thing that works for me is listening to some Grateful Dead. Because there ain’t no time to hate. Barely time to wait. We’ve some things to talk about. Here, beside the rising tide…

humanity’s ability to address current crises hampered by religion-inspired narratives


ZERIG / Pixabay

According to a Pew Research Center poll from 2010, 41% of Americans believe that Christ’s Second Coming will occur before 2050 CE.  A 2014 Gallup poll reveals that 42% of Americans believe that God created human beings 10,000 years ago.  These viewpoints are a dramatic and radical departure from scientific consensus.  Indeed, such beliefs suggest a radically different narrative about how our world is constructed, and it has unsettling implications for humanity’s ability to address current crises.

The basis for the belief that the Second Coming of Christ is imminent has many sources in the Bible.  Matthew 24:27 and Luke 17:30 make references to the “Son of Man.” But in those early sources, Christ is quoted as saying “Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened” (Matt. 24:34; Mark 13:30; Luke 21:32).  As such, some of these quotes can be interpreted as either predicting the Second Coming, or perhaps the Resurrection, which are two entirely different phenomena. A big basis for modern belief in the Second Coming is the Book of Revelation.  It must be noted that while many people believe the author to be the same John who wrote the Gospel of John, most scholarship rejects this idea.  Many believe the author was someone referred to as “John the Elder,” from Ephesus (in Asia Minor, now known as Turkey) who wrote the book on the island of Patmos (near Asia Minor) back around 96 CE.  It was written during a period of intense persecution of Christians.

The question one must ask is, who was he, and how was it that his book was added to the Bible?  The development of the 27 books of the New Testaments was a complicated process, with decisions made after the First Council of Nicaea in 325 CE.

Yet, to hear many Christians–particularly evangelical Christians–talk about the Book of Revelations,  one might think that the book was more central to Christianity than the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.  So even though there are many Christians who believe that the Book of Revelations and other Second Coming writings reflected earlier periods in the history of Christianity, the influence of this book is such that 41% of Americans believe that this Second Coming will occur in the next forty years.

I firmly believe that we must respond to the challenges of this day and age by focusing on this day and age.  There is great wisdom in the example set by Jesus, and his actions certainly can and should guide many of our actions today.

But to base your life on a narrative other than the reality surrounding you is problematic.  To base not just your moral code but your view of the actual construction of the world on something written in the first or second century CE–and then use it to govern your actions in the 21st century CE is enormously irresponsible.  This is because despite the individualistic nature of modern American society, your actions–or lack thereof–have an impact on everyone else.

It is grossly unfair for people living in an alternate reality to undermine the earnest work of people who want to make a difference in today’s uncertain and challenging realites.  What if likes of Jesus were actually to come to a polluted, barren, and dismal Earth filled with needless suffering because a significant number of people chose to cling to a reality other than the present reality?  Upon whom would a Christ-like figure cast judgment?  Who would be among the wicked and the damned in this case?

war on ISIS: world-wide whac-a-mole once again

howitzer, mortar, grenade

WikiImages (CC0), PixabaySo it seems we can’t leave Iraq alone.  Now it’s a war on ISIS–the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria which now refers itself to as simply the “Islamic State.”  The U.S. government just doesn’t seem to know how to stop pouring gasoline on the fire.

Of course, the rise of ISIS is a horrible development, but is one in which our country had a hand in creating.  Al-Qaeda had no presence in Iraq (despite the Bush administration’s insistence to the contrary) until after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, when the resulting instability created internal wounds that drew in outside forces and acted as a recruiting tool for Al-Qaeda and its offshoots.

Look what our bombs accomplished in Libya.  Our nation’s leadership believed there was an urgent humanitarian crisis when rebels faced government forces in 2011. Is Libya now a functioning democracy?  No, Libya is a failed state engulfed in civil war with fundamentalist radicalism there on the rise.

The U.S. has a horrible record of bombing non-state actors out of existence.  The Taliban is still a major player in Afghanistan, nearly thirteen years after the U.S. and allies invaded. The killing of Osama bin Laden did not end either al Qaeda or the radicalism associated with it.

The reason is simple: as I’ve said before, we are continuing to fight a 21st century war via 19th and 20th century means. It’s easy to take over a government via military force, but it’s impossible to defuse an idea by the same means.  ISIS, itself a Sunni organization, was able to take advantage of vast Sunni frustration with an Iraq government dominated by Shi’as. Air strikes and other military actions kill civilians and disrupt civilian lives, and then these areas become fertile recruiting grounds for the terrorist groups–or related splinter cells.  Even if the organization were to cease to exist, its members could reform into another splinter organization.

We are digging ourselves into deeper and deeper holes as the Middle East becomes more and more unstable. With every bomb the U.S. drops, the risk of another terrorist act on U.S. soil grows.  If we wanted to maximize the chance of another major attack on U.S. soil, the foreign policy the U.S. has engaged in since 2001 is precisely the way to achieve this.   We have been needing to clean up the mess we’ve created for ourselves since the 9/11 attacks, and unfortunately, we are just creating a bigger and bigger mess.



another home birth in the co-op house

For the second time in three years,we have been blessed by a home birth in the co-op house. Yesterday around 6 p.m. we gained a new member in room five. It’s a boy!

I have lived in my current co-op house for six years now, and it says something about how much of a home this can be when a new life comes into being in this house. It’s something to be proud of and I think it says something about the house when residents feel at home enough to let this miracle happen here.

I joke that now that rooms four and five have been blessed with home births, we should work on the other rooms.  Of course, it is neither a practical or desirable goal, and in one or two rooms, this feat would be physically impossible.

The expecting couple led discussions at a couple of house meetings about their needs and expectations a few weeks before the baby was due, and we also held a baby shower here. To some extent, the whole house was preparing for the baby.

But just in case anyone was wondering, this home birth, like the previous one, was a private family affair–and I mean biological family. We didn’t have the entire house watching and gawking–the room was only for the husband, wife, baby, midwives and doulas.  Even the new grandparents and aunt and uncle were waiting downstairs.

As of yet, I have not seen (or really even heard) the baby.  The last time we had a home birth it was several days before we saw the baby, and it took weeks before we saw him very often. I imagine it would be overwhelming for a new baby to be introduced too soon to so many people.

But the children do eventually adapt to co-op life.  Indeed, they seem to often thrive from contact with so many others.  I was quite close to the previous baby born in this house, as well as his older sister, who moved here with her parents when she was but a month old.

I thought it would be appropriate to include a video for the Cloud Cult song, “You Were Born.” It’s a sweet, pertinent, and a delightful song.

Oh, and, what the heck–I might as well include this song too as lead singer Craig Minowa reportedly wrote it for his newborn baby.

critical month for democracy: citizens united, net neutrality and scotland

Public views of the Citizens United v. Federal...

Public views of the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It turns out that this month of September is going to be a critical month for democracy on many levels. The U.S. Senate will be voting on a constitutional amendement to overturning Citizens United most likely sometime this week.  For the first time, every U.S. Senator will have to go on record as to whether they believe money is actually speech (meaning that those with more money have more of a voice).  As can be seen from the graphic on the right, party affiliation has little bearing on the public’s stance on Citizens United–the public overwhelmingly disagrees with the Supreme Court’s ruling on the case.

net neutrality world logo

net neutrality world logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Next week on 15 September, the comment period for the  Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) proposal to allow big telecom companies to turn the Internet into a pay-to-play scheme.  In this proposal, anyone who pays enough money can have their sites more accessible while the rest of us are relegated to an Internet “slow lane.”  Since the mid 2000s, AT&T, Verizon, Comcast and other big players have resisted every effort to make “net neutrality” the law of the land. But more recently, in rather Orwellian language, they have argued that setting up a two-tier Internet somehow actually protects Net Neutrality.  I think a lot of start-up businesses, small businesses and other independent producers of content would firmly disagree. This Wednesday 10 September has been designated “Internet Slowdown Day”

in which a number of websites, including Reddit, Vimeo, WordPress, Meetup and this website will demonstrate the impact of an Internet slow lane in a very, well, graphic way.

Flag of Scotland. Ratio 3:5. The blue used is ...

Flag of Scotland. Ratio 3:5. The blue used is “royal” blue (Pantone 300), following the Scottish Parliament’s recommendation of 2003. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Finally, on 18 September, citizens of Scotland will vote to decide whether they will remain part of the United Kingdom or become an independent country.  Ethnically, I am about half-Scottish from both sides of my family and descended from multiple Scottish families. Recently, polls show a dead heat for the referendum. While my heart is for Scottish independence, this is the decision for the Scottish themselves to make, and I am reluctant to weigh in.  But my observation is that a smaller, more localized government can be held more easily accountable by its citizens than a larger, more distant government. Not always, of course (especially in places that have ethnic and racial minorities), but I have very much noticed the difference between living in Chicago and Madison, and I find the government in Madison much more accessible and democratic.  Furthermore, government surveillance in the United Kingdom is as worrisome as that in the United States

I find this interesting because besides being about half Scottish, I am also one-fourth Lithuanian and Hungarian.  (I reportedly also have smaller bits of German, English, Irish, Dutch and Slovak ancestry as well, and perhaps even Native American).  With my ancestors primarily coming from Scotland, Hungary and Lithuania, I find it noteworthy that of these three ancestries, only one of them–Hungary–was an independent country when I was born, and its independence was somewhat questionable given that the Soviet Union intervened to overthrow the Hungarian government in 1956 after it promised reform after an uprising.  But Hungary won its independence from the Soviet bloc in 1989 and  Lithuania declared independence in 1990. Might Scotland be next?


madison moving day madness magnifies mucked-up mid-town milieu

Students ignoring request to move their truck so that a city bus can get through.

Students who think they are above having to move their truck even though they are blocking the route of a city bus.  A ten minute delay resulted.

During the month of August, and particularly August 14-16, U-Haul and other trucking rental companies unleash thousands of trucks on the streets of Madison, Wisconsin–driven by people without licenses to be truck drivers.  Yes, it’s Madison Moving Day.

Does chaos result?  Yes and no.

In many ways its an annual rite of passage, and it has become somewhat of an exact science.  August 14 is often referred to as “Hippie Christmas” because of the wonderful opportunity for dumpster divers and curb pickers to find used treasure. The streets of downtown Madison used to be virtual canyons of used items. I knew one group of people who would rent a cargo van, divide up the streets between them, and comb their respective territories for treasure,  dressed in grungy clothes and work gloves. Nowadays the city will pick up junk before the pickers get to it, and the canyons of used items aren’t as high as they used to be.

But beyond the stuff left behind for others, there’s also the hauling of the rest of the stuff and that’s where the trucks come in. Naturally,  the trucks take up more room than cars. And herein lies the problem.  Or at least part of the problem.

In the photo above, students are pictured blocking State Street so that they can unload their stuff into an apartment.  While State Street is technically a pedestrian mall, it is also a bus route, and in this picture, the students ignored repeated requests to move their truck out of the way of a city bus running its route.

While this is an example of the exaggerated sense of entitlement that many UW students have, it is also indicative of poor planning at the City of Madison level that threatens to drive down the quality of life across the city.  While downtown developers are starting to toast Madison, Wisconsin as the next Austin, Texas, many of us who live near downtown fear that we are actually poised to become the next Los Angeles, California in miniature.  More about this in a subsequent post.