July 4: Wave the banners and give a cheer for America’s Independence Day

Table of popcorn, snacks and goodies in Fourth of July papers, bags, tissues and decorated with mini flags

Photo by Anders Ruff Custom Designs, courtesy of Flickr

MONDAY, JULY 4: Nothing says “summer” in the U.S. like the Fourth of July, when the Stars and Stripes fly high and family cars fill the freeways: Today, on Independence Day, Americans celebrate freedom with parades, picnics, reunions with family and friends and fireworks exploding in the night sky. Though the legal separation of the Thirteen Colonies from Great Britain took place on July 2, 1776, it was two days later—July 4—when the Second Continental Congress gave its approval, and Americans observe this day in grand ceremony. So fire up the grill, deck out your yard (or yourself) in red, white and blue, and enjoy summer’s all-American holiday!

No major fireworks in your area? Tune in to CBS for the live webcast of the Boston Pops concert and fireworks, which will feature celebrities Demi Lovato and Nick Jonas this year and is attended by a half million people annually.


FIreworks display over city buildings, over water, night sky

Fourth of July fireworks in New Jersey. Photo by Anthony Quintano, courtesy of Flickr

With the fledgling battles of the Revolutionary War in April 1775, few colonists considered complete independence from Great Britain. Within a year, however, hostilities toward Great Britain were building and the desire for independence was growing, too.

In June 1776, the Continental Congress appointed a five-person committee to draft a formal statement that would vindicate the break with Great Britain: Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Roger Sherman and Robert R. Livingston. Jefferson, considered the most articulate writer in the group, crafted the original draft. A total of 86 changes were made to the draft before its final adoption on July 4 by the Second Continental Congress. On July 5, 1776, official copies of the Declaration of Independence were distributed.

Which Founding Father would you vote for?  Take quizzes and test your Constitution knowledge at ConstitutionFacts.com.

One year following, in 1777, Philadelphia marked the Fourth of July with an official dinner, toasts, 13-gun salutes, music, parades, prayers and speeches. As the new nation faced challenges, celebrations fell out of favor during ensuing decades. It wasn’t until after the War of 1812 that printed copies of the Declaration of Independence again were widely circulated, and festivities marked America’s Independence Day. Congress declared July 4 a national holiday in 1870.

A Capitol Fourth: A salute of one gun for each U.S. state is fired on July 4 at noon by any capable military base, and in the evening, A Capitol Fourth—a free concert broadcast live by PBS, NPR and the American Forces Network—takes place on the Capitol lawn in Washington, D.C.


Nothing sets the stage for a summer party like the occasion of the Fourth of July! Dig up those red, white and blue decorations and recipes, and invite neighbors and friends over for a birthday bash for the nation.

From the perfect juicy hamburger to a towering red, white and blue trifle, find recipes from Martha Stewart, AllRecipes, Food Network, Food & Wine, Taste of Home, Rachael Ray and Real Simple.

HGTV offers traditional Fourth of July fare and cocktail ideas.

For party and decor tips, check out HGTV’s Americana style suggestions and backyard party tips.

Reader’s Digest offers 10 fun party games fit for any celebration of the Fourth.

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Categories: National Observances

Midsummer, Litha and solstice: Welcome, summer!

Three older girls smile while wearing wildflower crowns

Girls pose in Midsummer crowns of flowers. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

MONDAY, JUNE 20: Bonfires, picnics on the beach, wreaths of wildflowers and Midsummer parties—Scandinavian-style—abound today, at the summer solstice. Across the Northern Hemisphere, it’s the “longest day of the year,” meaning that for astrological reasons, inhabitants of the north experience more hours and minutes of daylight than on any other day of the year. In 2016, summer solstice will occur at 22:34 Universal Time (UTC).

For people around the world, Midsummer has been equated with sun gods, greenery, fertility rituals and medicinal herbs for millennia. In Scandinavian countries, the longest day is one of the most beloved holidays of the year. A Scandinavian Midsummer is complete with an entire day’s worth of outdoor activities for citizens young and old: extravagant smorgasbord lunches, outdoor games for the entire community, dancing and more.

Flower crowns are all the rage, and this ancient accessory for Midsummer fetes is as easy as gathering a few favorite flowers and basic craft materials. For a tutorial on how to create a chic one, check out Lauren Conrad.com.

The Midsummer menu is as dear to Scandinavians as the Christmas goose or ham is to celebrants of the winter holiday, and fresh strawberries often take center stage in cakes, shortcakes or eaten straight out of the bowl. Other traditional foods include the season’s first potatoes, made with dill and butter; a roast; herring or other types of fish and seafood; hard-boiled eggs and summer cabbage. For recipes, visit Bon Appetit or ScandinaviaFood.com.

Strawberries and cream in cups on tray of wood filled with wildflowers, red drink bottles in background

Strawberries—usually ripe for the picking at Midsummer—have a place at almost every Swedish smorgasbord luncheon. Photo by Karlis Dambrans, courtesy of Flickr


In Finland, the summer holiday unofficially starts with Midsummer, and so many flock to countryside cottages that city streets can seem eerily empty. Saunas, bonfires, barbecues and fishing are enjoyed by hundreds.

Two northeastern towns in Brazil have been in lengthy competition for the title of “Biggest Saint John Festival in the World,” and throughout the South American country, dishes made with corn and sweet potatoes are favored.

In Austria, a spectacular procession of ships makes its way down the Danube River, while fireworks light up the night sky above castle ruins. In Latvia, homes, livestock and even cars are decorated with leaves, tree branches, flowers and other greenery.

The largest American celebrations of Midsummer take place in New York City, Seattle, Tucson and San Francisco. In Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, members of the large Finnish population celebrate Juhannus with beachfront bonfires and other outdoor activities.


Wiccans and Pagans may observe Litha, a holiday of gratitude for light and life. At Litha, adherents note the full abundance of nature at the point of mid-summer. Traditionally, fresh fruits and vegetables are the main course at shared meals, and bonfires are lit to pay homage to the full strength of the sun. In centuries past, torchlight processions were common; at Stonehenge, the heelstone marks the midsummer sunrise as viewed from the center of the stone circle.

Though harvest is not in full swing yet, many wild herbs are mature for picking and, thus, Midsummer is known as “Gathering Day” in Wales and in other various regions. Herbs, gathered most often for medicinal qualities, are gathered and dried for later use.

Interested in a modern-day take on gathering and drying healing herbs? Check out this story by Antioch College student Aubrey Hodapp, whose studies under an herbalist have helped her to deliver local, organic tea to her fellow students and much more (featured this week at FeedTheSpirit).

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Categories: InterfaithInternational ObservancesNational ObservancesWiccan / Pagan

Happy Father’s Day! Americans celebrate more than 70 million dads

Dad and son next to each other in matching yellow cars, one regular size one mini

Photo by Frank Derks, courtesy of Flickr

SUNDAY, JUNE 19: Give Dad a hug and say “Thanks”—it’s Father’s Day! Across the United States, more than 70 million fathers qualify for recognition on this special day. Whether you’ll be firing up the grill, giving Dad a call or just spending time with him, take part in the celebration that has honored U.S. fathers for more than half a century.

Several early versions of the American Father’s Day exist, but the one most often credited with influencing today’s holiday began in Spokane, Washington, in 1910. After hearing a sermon on Mother’s Day in 1909, Sonora Smart Dodd asked her pastor if fathers could have a similar holiday—after all, her father had single handedly raised his six children after their mother passed away. The pastor agreed, and the sermon for fathers was delivered on the third Sunday of June. Though Father’s Day didn’t garner widespread success initially, Spokane-based advocates of the holiday soon partnered with trade groups and began promoting the holiday with vigor. The Father’s Day Council came on board in 1938, and by 1972, President Richard Nixon was signing the holiday into law.

Dad holding young child on beach

Photo courtesy of Pixabay

Did you know? Celebrations similar to the American Father’s Day have been in existence around the globe for many years. In traditionally Catholic countries, fathers are popularly recognized on the Feast of St. Joseph.

Today, President Barack Obama urges all Dads to take the Fatherhood Pledge, and for kids young and old to remember that it’s not all about gifted ties and golf clubs; it’s the time spent and love that earn Dad’s heart. So give good ol’ Dad a big hug and tell him “thank you,” today, however you can!


Cooking dinner for Dad? Whether you’re taking food to the grill or to the oven, get inspired with recipes from Food Network, Martha Stewart and AllRecipes.

Spending time with Dad may be the best gift of all, and if you’re stumped for activity ideas, Reader’s Digest and Parents.com doll out suggestions on what to do (mini golf, anyone?).

Not sure what to get Dad this year?

The Wall Street Journal rounded up nine retro gift ideas.

Wired has 21 gifts for 21 types of dads.

Fox News suggests wine, beer and spirits gifts.

From the Kids: Young children can craft gifts, cards and more with ideas from Disney’s Spoonful.

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Categories: National Observances

Juneteenth Independence Day: U.S. Senate establishes title as events expand

Group of African-American singers under white tent

A Gospel choir sings for a Juneteenth celebration in Maryland. (Photo by Elvert Barnes, courtesy of Flickr)

SUNDAY, JUNE 19: Barbecues and street fairs, gospel concerts and prayer services take place across the nation today in celebration of the oldest known commemoration of the ending of slavery in the United States: Juneteenth, also known as Emancipation Day.

NEWS: Last year, the U.S. Senate established the 19th of June as Juneteenth Independence Day. Juneteenth is now an official observance in 43 U.S. states and the District of Columbia.

June doesn’t mark the Emancipation Proclamation itself; instead, this holiday recalls the date, more than two years later, when slaves in Texas were finally freed and former Confederates were forced to recognize the Proclamation.

Though slaves had been freed more than two years earlier under President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, slaves in the deep South had felt minimum impact.With the surrender of General Lee in April 1865, Northern forces were now strong enough to overcome resistance in the South. On June 18, 1865, Union General Gordon Granger and 2,000 federal troops reached Galveston, Texas, to enforce emancipation. And on June 19, Granger read aloud the contents of “General Order No.3.” The Order read, in part:

Group of African American men and women in formal dress, black-and-white photo

Juneteenth celebration in Austin, Texas, on June 19, 1900. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

“The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with the Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of rights and property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and free laborer.”

In reaction to the news, men and women who had been enslaved danced in the streets. Some immediately left their former masters in search of freedom or to find family members. The next year, freedmen organized the first annual “Juneteenth” celebrations in Texas, using public parks, church grounds and newly purchased land for the jubilant parties.

Did you know? Juneteenth celebrations declined in the early 20th century, but came back into favor during the Civil Rights movement. In 1980, Juneteenth became an official state holiday in Texas.

Many of the largest Juneteenth celebrations today can still be found in Texas (though not far behind are those in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and Minneapolis, Minnesota). The most established Emancipation parks—bought by some of the first freed slaves of the South, specifically for large June 19 gatherings—are still thriving today.

Did you know? Juneteenth is a linguistic portmanteau, meaning that it is a blend of words. It fuses “June” and “Nineteenth.”

Major institutions such as the Smithsonian and Henry Ford Museum have begun sponsoring Juneteenth activities, and in many areas, portions of General Order Number 3 are read. Juneteenth has, from its beginnings, focused on education and self-improvement, and celebrations often include public readings of the writings of noted African-American writers and singing.

Barbecued chicken on the barbecue

Photo by thebittenword.com, courtesy of Flickr


Looking for more?

Learn the history of Juneteenth from the Library of Congress and PBS.

Recipes fit for the day are at Betty Crocker and American Food Roots.

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Categories: National Observances

The Counting of the Omer is over: Jews recall giving of the Torah for Shavuot

Cheese blintzes cut and resting on a plate

Cheese blintzes—both sweet and savory—are just one of the many dairy treats enjoyed during Shavuot. Photo by Alpha, courtesy of Flickr

SUNSET SATURDAY, JUNE 11: Flourishing greenery, aromatic flowers and baskets overflowing with fresh grains are just some of the signs of Shavuot, the joyous Jewish holiday that wraps up the seven-week Counting of the Omer and celebrates the day G_d gave the Torah to the nation of Israel. Originally an ancient grain-harvest festival, Shavuot gained its place in Jewish history when the giving of the Torah took place, on Mount Sinai. The Midrash accounts that Mount Sinai blossomed in full bounty in anticipation of the giving of the Torah on its peak, and in representation of that, Jews decorate synagogues and drape blossoms and vines for Shavuot.

Did you know? An omer is an ancient measure of grain.

This ancient holiday is also known as the Festival of Weeks, because the seven-week period of anticipation that started during Passover ends on Shavuot. The reason for the Counting of the Omer? To link Passover—the physical freedom gained with the Exodus—to Shavuot—the spiritual freedom gained with presentation of the Torah.


Stalk of wheat in field of wheat

Wheat—one of the ‘First Fruits’ of ancient Israel—has long been offered during Shavuot. Photo courtesy of Pixabay

The ancient spring grain harvest lasted for seven weeks, and when that first harvest ended—at Shavuot—farmers would bring an offering of two loaves of bread to the Temple of Jerusalem. In the same manner, the first fruits of Israel (Bikkurim) were also brought to the Temple on Shavuot. In a grand display, farmers would fill baskets woven of gold and silver with the Seven Species—wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives and dates—and load the glittering baskets onto oxen whose horns were laced with flowers. These oxen and farmers would travel to Jerusalem, marching through towns and met by music, parades and other festivities.

To this day, many Jewish families display baskets of “First Fruits,” including foods such as wheat, barley, grapes, wine, figs, pomegranates, olives and dates. Barley and wheat harvests are intimately connected with the timing of Shavuot.


Many customs are associated with Shavuot, among them being the consumption of dairy products, readings from the Book of Ruth and, for observant Jews, an all-night Torah study. Several explanations exist for these traditions. One is: Jews recall the night the Torah was given and how the ancient Israelites overslept. Some Jews today remain awake throughout the night, giving thanks for the Torah. In Jerusalem, the all-night Torah study ends with the procession of tens of thousands to the Western Wall at dawn.

Note: In Israel, Shavuot is celebrated for one day; in the rest of the world, it’s observed for two days.


The specific reason for consuming dairy on Shavuot is unclear—some relate it to the non-kosher meat dishes of the ancient Israelites, while others refer to the Torah as King Solomon did, “like honey and milk”—and still others have additional reasons. No matter the reason, Jewish bakeries and shops overflow with indulgent cheese blintzes, cheesecakes, cheese ravioli and more in the days leading to Shavuot.

Make dairy treats at home with these easy-to-follow, DIY recipes:

  • Gluten-free cheese blintzes from JNS.org.
  • Yam, Goat Cheese and Rosemary Quiche from Haaretz.
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Categories: Jewish

Ramadan: Muslims fast during ‘longest days’ of the calendar year

Woman stands below grand ceiling, hands raised, looking at ceiling, in dress and headscarf

A Muslim woman offers a Ramadan prayer. Photo by Thamer Al-Hassan, courtesy of Flickr

SUNSET SUNDAY, JUNE 5: As a crescent moon appears and is spotted around the globe, the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims—or, nearly a quarter of Earth’s population—begin the month of Ramadan. (Note: Starting dates may vary by location and by method of calculation.)

Because the Islamic calendar is lunar, the beginning and end of Ramadan is based on a crescent moon sighting that is typically visible 1-2 days after the astronomical new moon. The end of Ramadan—the ninth month of the Islamic calendar—is met with Eid al-Fitr, a festival of the breaking of the fast. Eid al-Fitr marks the beginning of the next lunar month, Shawwal, and is a time of great feasting and family celebrations. This year, Ramadan ends on the evening of Tuesday, July 5. But, again, actual dates vary by community and nation because of traditional methods for sighting the moon.

American Muslims and July 4th: This year, Ramadan and the American Independence Day will overlap, meaning that any typical holiday fare—including family picnics for Muslims—will have to be partaken in after sunset.

Fasting hours reach peak in 2016: As Ramadan moves slowly around the Gregorian calendar, 2016 will cover some of the “longest” days of the year in the Northern Hemisphere—which, for observant Muslims, equates to more hours of daytime fasting. This year, Ramadan will incorporate the summer solstice, on June 20—the “longest” day of the year.


The Beauty of Ramadan by Najah Bazzy front cover (1)

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

Najah Bazzy, author of The Beauty of Ramadanreminds readers in her opening pages that Ramadan is about far more than denial of food and water during daylight hours. Bazzy, a nationally known expert on cross-cultural healthcare, covers many of the health-related issues in her book. But she calls on a traditional text credited to the Prophet Muhammad for the deeper meaning of this special month. In addition to fasting, prayer and Quran study:

Give alms to the poor and the needy. Pay respect to your elders. Have pity on those younger than you and be kind toward your relatives and kinsmen. Guard your tongues against unworthy words, and your eyes from such scenes that are forbidden and your ears from such sounds as should not be heard. Be kind to orphans.

Bazzy’s book explains much more about the rich experience of this month for Muslim families. It also clearly explains a lot about the month’s practices, making the book helpful for educators, anyone in public service and neighbors or co-workers with Muslim friends.


Fasting is a tradition in nearly all of the world’s great faiths—but the word “fasting” can refer to many different forms of this ancient tradition. In some traditions, giving up meat or other kinds of foods is a fast. In other groups, a fast may be the elimination of a single meal—or it may refer to avoiding food, but not liquids.

Three dates in wooden bowl

Three dates are traditionally consumed at the end of each day’s fast during Ramadan. Photo courtesy of YouTube

Muslims observe the month of Ramadan with a strict sunrise-to-sunset fast, which means that nothing passes the lips during those hours. All food and drink (including water) is prohibited. Meanwhile, prayer is increased, as is reading from the Quran. According to Muslim belief, the first revelation of the Quran to Muhammad occurred during Ramadan, and as such, observance of the month is one of the Five Pillars of Islam. Many Muslim communities around the world invite special vocal interpreters of the Quran to come to mosques and chant the sacred text, night after night, until the entire holy book is completed.

During the month of Ramadan, Muslims partake in a pre-dawn meal known as the Suhoor, and do not return to eating until after sunset—with the iftar.

Looking for traditional recipes this Ramadan? Look to AllRecipes and Epicurious for a generous selection.

Three dates customarily break the fast each day of Ramadan, and an iftar meal is often an occasion for social gatherings, large feasts and buffet-style hosting. Occasionally, Muslims describe the night-time iftar tradition as “like a series of Thanksgiving dinners,” because friends and family often visit each other during the nights of Ramadan—and favorite dishes frequently are prepared for these feasts.

A lantern with colored glass on each side, reflecting colors onto walls around it

A Ramadan lantern. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons


In addition to fasting, Muslims donate to charity during Ramadan. Charity, known as zakat, sometimes translated as “the poor-rate,” is an obligatory practice.

Laylat al-Qadr, or the “night of power,” is considered the holiest night of the year and commemorates the night the first revelation of the Quran was sent to Muhammad. Around the Islamic world, traditions vary for identifying the date of Laylat al-Qadr—though it is generally believed to fall on one of the odd-numbered nights of the last 10 days of Ramadan.

Do you know Muslim friends, neighbors or co-workers? Michigan State University’s Joe Grimm reports on an easy and friendly way to reach out during Ramadan.


Working hours reduced by two hours during Ramadan: For private sector employees in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), working hours during Ramadan will be 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., The National recently reported. School hours will also be shortened, as Ramadan overlaps with some of the final days of the 2016 academic calendar.

Interfaith iftars: Interfaith Jewish seders have been steadily gaining popularity, but a Minnesota-based Episcopal priest is organizing efforts to expand this kind of interfaith custom to Muslims, too—with a program that raises awareness of the truths about Islam and welcomes non-Muslims to iftar meals during Ramadan. Last year, close to 1,000 non-Muslims participated in the iftars in Minnesota, and across the country, similar programs are being initiated.

This is a popular practice in other parts of the U.S. as well. Check with Muslim centers in your part of the country.

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Categories: Muslim

Memorial Day: Commemorate fallen soldiers, honor history and kick off summer

Soldiers holding flags, one saluting, white navy uniformed men in back, on grass conducting ceremony

A 2013 Memorial Day ceremony in California. Photo by Presidio of Monterey, courtesy of Flickr

MONDAY, MAY 30: Patriotic parades, solemn ceremonies and the unofficial start of summer mark Memorial Day in the United States, observed annually on the last Monday of May. In some communities, Americans young and old line the streets for parades. Many take time to listen to veterans’ stories and pay respect to fallen soldiers.

If you are reading this column and care about the lives of veterans and their families, we recommend that you learn more about a book, 100 Questions and Answers about Veterans, produced by the Michigan State University School of Journalism.

Originally called Decoration Day, this national holiday began after the Civil War.

Who was “first”? Many claims have been made about which community first began honoring fallen soldiers in the Civil War era. Wikipedia summarizes several of them:

A claim was made in 1906 that the first Civil War soldier’s grave ever decorated was in Warrenton, Virginia, on June 3, 1861, implying the first Memorial Day occurred there. Women in Savannah, Georgia, decorated Confederate soldiers’ graves in 1862, but not Union soldiers’ graves. In 1863, the cemetery dedication at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, was a ceremony of commemoration at the graves of dead soldiers. Local historians in Boalsburg, Pennsylvania, claim that ladies there decorated soldiers’ graves on July 4, 1864. The first widely publicized observance of a Memorial Day-type observance after the Civil War was in Charleston, South Carolina, on May 1, 1865.

Library of Congress preserves this photo taken in 1865 while the African-American reconstruction of the cemetery in Charleston was in progress. The rows of markers are newly established individual Union graves.

The Library of Congress preserves this photo, taken in 1865 while the African-American reconstruction of the cemetery in Charleston was in progress. The rows of markers are newly established individual Union graves.

The events in Charleston were documented by historian Stephen Blight. If you care to delve more deeply into that story of courageous former slaves who dared to hold the observance in Charleston in 1865, click on the historic photo or right here to jump back to some of our earlier coverage.

The first official Decoration Day at Arlington National Cemetery—May 30, 1868—drew a crowd of 5,000 people, including Gen. and Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant. By 1890, each state in the North had made Decoration Day an official state holiday. Southern states didn’t follow suit until after World War I. (Wikipedia has details.) As the nation and its memorial holiday evolved, Decoration Day was recognized as a day of remembrance for all soldiers who had sacrificed their lives for their country. Gradually, the holiday became known as Memorial Day, and in 1968, the Uniform Monday Holiday Act moved the date from a fixed May 30 to the last Monday in May. That law took effect in 1971.

In cemeteries across the nation, small American flags are placed at each veteran’s grave for Memorial Day remembrances and, among some families, flowers are placed on fallen ancestors’ gravesites.

National Memorial Day Concert

Click on this image to visit the concert’s website.

Don’t Miss the May 29 Concert

Each year, a National Memorial Day Concert is held in Washington D.C.—this year, at 3 p.m. on Sunday May 29, carried live by PBS and NPR. The program will be co-hosted by Joe Mantegna and Gary Sinise. The concert is broadcast to U.S. troops serving around the world on the American Forces Network, reaching more than 1,000 outlets in more than 175 countries and on board U.S. Navy ships. This year’s concert lineup includes The Beach Boys, Katharine McPhee and the National Symphony Orchestra.

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Categories: National Observances