Senior Citizens Day: Say ‘thank you’ to members of a changing demographic

Elderly couple standing beneath an orange umbrella

Senior citizens have become the largest—and fastest-growing—segment of the U.S. population. Photo by Sarah Thomas, courtesy of Flickr

THURSDAY, AUGUST 21: Thank an elderly person in your life—or, one you just met—today, on National Senior Citizens Day. As the nation’s elderly population swells, the contributions of seniors cannot be denied: healthier lifestyles are leading to more active later years, and volunteering at unprecedented levels. What’s more, this national holiday celebrates the achievements and accomplishments of the approximately 40 million older Americans alive today. (Learn what some Boomers really think about the “senior” label in this article, from Delaware Online.)

The year was 1988; President Ronald Reagan created National Senior Citizens Day with a proclamation, declaring that, “Throughout our history, older people have achieved much for our families, our communities, and our country. That remains true today, and gives us ample reason this year to reserve a special day in honor of the senior citizens who mean so much to our land. (Read more here.) In a discussion on the topic, he stated, “For all they have achieved throughout life and for all they continue to accomplish, we owe older citizens our thanks and a heartfelt salute.”

What can I do? On National Senior Citizens Day, visit a senior living center, an elderly relative or an older neighbor. Take an older person who can no longer drive to a movie, shopping, or to see a friend. Volunteer your time at a nursing home, and encourage others to do the same! Sunrise Senior Living suggests hosting a luncheon or outdoor activity for the seniors in your community.

Being a senior in the United States definitely has its perks, too—this article lists all of the discounts and freebies available from age 50, 55, 60 and more. Medicare, Social Security and AARP benefits are among the most widely known, but more discounts can be found on websites like Government programs available for seniors can be found at

The United Nations International Day for Older Persons is observed annually on October 1.

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Categories: National Observances

Krishna Janmashtami: Celebrating the birthday of a popular Hindu deity

Pyramid of boys wearing red shirts in a street alley, with top boy reaching for pot hanging from strung rope

A team of youngsters attempts to reach the handi pot, on Krishna Janmashtami. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

MONDAY, AUGUST 18: Break out the handi pots, fast in reverence and join the anxious wait for the midnight birth of a Hindu deity on Krishna Janmashtami. Many of the world’s more than 900 million Hindus mark this magnificent holiday with sweets, butter, Dahi Handi and uriadi events, and dramatic enactments of Krishna’s life.

Renowned for his playfulness and mischievous youth, the eighth avatar of Vishnu is believed to have been born in 3228 BCE. Prior to his birth, a prophesy declared that the eighth child of Princess Devaki—Krishna—would kill the murderous king, Kansa. The prophesy inspired the hiding of the child Krishna, and as foretold, the grown Krishna returned home to take Kansa’s life.


From the morning of Krishna Janmashtami, devotees fast and place images of Krishna’s infancy in swings and cradles. Temples are decorated, and throughout India, groups of youngsters travel to areas where handi pots—earthen pots, most commonly filled with buttermilk—are hung high. Each group forms a human pyramid, from which the topmost child attempts to break the handi pot, which is hung high above the ground. (Wikipedia has details.) Prizes are offered for the group that breaks each pot, and large sums of money have attracted more competitors in recent years. In some regions, local celebrities and Bollywood actors participate in the activities, all in attempt to recall the child-god Krishna’s affinity for stealing butter.

At midnight, festivities culminate in the temple, where Hindus gather for devotional songs and dance. Kirtans are sung or played, and offerings of flowers, coins and food are made. Excitement builds, and some begin to bellow the kirtans for Krishna.

The following day is called Nanda Utsav, for the celebration of Krishna’s foster parents.

Celebrating at home: Even without a temple, anyone can celebrate Krishna Janmashtami. suggests decorating the home with garlands and balloons; playing music and listening to bhajan recordings; reading stories of Krishna’s life; and bathing figures of Krishna in yogurt, honey and ghee. Temple goings-on can be viewed online, here.

Why Krishna? Krishna is revered by devotees for his personable ways and for his reputation for mischief making, passion and empathy. It’s believed that Krishna responds to and reciprocates the innermost desires of his worshippers.


A Mumbai High Court decision to ban children under age 18 from participating in the pyramid-building of Dahi Handi was lifted mere days before Krishna Janmashtami, when the Supreme Court lowered the age restriction to 12. The pyramids can reach heights that can cause injury or even death, if participants fall. In its ruling, the court directed organizers to supply helmets, safety belts and layers of cushions to participants. (Indian Express reported.) The court also asked organizers to have emergency medical help available.

Work will begin on the world’s tallest Krishna temple this Janmashtami, for a building expected to reach 210 meters on 70 acres of land. Located in Vrindavan, India, the temple will also be home to a museum, library, park, forests and luxury villas. (Read the story here.)

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Categories: Faiths of India

Centennial of United Negro Improvement Association; birth of Marcus Garvey

Black-and-white photo of seated adult Marcus Garvey

Today, Rastafari and followers of Marcus Garvey celebrate his birth anniversary; this year, many also mark the centennial of the organization Garvey founded, the Universal Negro Improvement Association. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

SUNDAY, AUGUST 17: Global celebrations, this summer, mark the centennial anniversary of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). Exhibits in his name, lectures and events are drawing Rastafari devotees as well as families of Jamaican heritage and those interested in African-American history. In the midst of that observance, today marks the August 17, 1887, birth of Marcus Garvey.

Regarded as a prophet the likes of St. John the Baptist in the Rastafari religion, Garvey was born in Jamaica. During his lifetime, Garvey attracted millions of followers and built an enormously popular organization that honored African heritage in the Americas. Though his politics and viewpoints were regarded as controversial by many, Garvey earned the title of Jamaica’s first national hero and left an undeniable imprint on history.


Born the youngest of 11 children, Marcus Garvey developed a devotion to reading during childhood. After departing from Jamaica in 1910, Garvey worked as a newspaper editor, and began traveling; he attended college and, in 1914, organized the UNIA. As the organization grew, Garvey’s popularity soared—although opposition to his philosophies and ideas accompanied his success.

When the UNIA’s business, the Black Star Line, drew charges of mail fraud, the consequences would later haunt Garvey. Nonetheless, during that same time, the UNIA’s membership continued to grow—surpassing 4 million members. (Wikipedia has details.) Garvey tried to develop Liberia as a permanent homeland for the African Diaspora and spoke frequently on education, economics and independence.

During speeches in the 1920s, Garvey often spoke of looking to Africa for a black king who was to be crowned. When Haile Selassie I was crowned emperor of Ethiopia, many regarded Garvey as a prophet. The followers of this philosophy, who call themselves Rastafari, still believe Garvey to be a prophet.

In 1940, Garvey died in London, at age 52. Primarily, Garvey is memorialized globally for advancing a global mass empowerment focused on Africa and blacks of the Diaspora. Martin Luther King commented, in a speech in 1965, that Garvey “was the first man on a mass scale and level to give millions of Negroes a sense of dignity and destiny. And make the Negro feel he was somebody.”


Last month, the Jamaican Embassy in Washington, D.C., praised the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the UNIA, duly noting Garvey’s heroic status in Jamaica and the continuing influence of his life in the lives of people in the Diaspora. (Atlanta Black Star reported.) This month, the African-American Research Library and Cultural Center in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., will be exhibiting a gallery of original photos, magazines, books and posters dedicated to Garvey’s cause and the UNIA. The exhibit will also showcase the UNIA’s current membership and activities. (Read more in this article.)

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Categories: AnniversaryRastafari

Christian: Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Dormition of the Theotokos

Painting of woman in sky, crowd of people beneath her

The Assumption of the Virgin, a painting by Peter Paul Rubens. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

FRIDAY, AUGUST 15: The Eastern Orthodox Dormition Fast has ended, and Christians bow their heads, today, for the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary and Dormition of the Theotokos. Two names for the same event, both the Assumption and the Dormition proclaim that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was assumed into heaven in body and soul. Whether or not Mary died before being assumed does vary by tradition—for Catholic Christians, the question remains open, while for Orthodox Christians, firm belief holds that she did, in fact, die a mortal death.

No evidence of Mary’s Assumption exists in scripture, yet the belief has been engrained in both branches of Christianity for centuries. With no scriptural evidence, the Church points, instead, to passages in Revelations, Genesis and Corinthians, to mention of a woman “caught between good and evil” and to those fallen asleep after Christ’s resurrection. Theologians and Christians have pointed out that a woman so close to Jesus during his earthly life would have naturally been assumed into Heaven, to be with him there.


Apocryphal accounts of the Assumption of Mary into heaven have circulated since the 4th century, and teachings of the Assumption have been widespread since the 5th century. (Wikipedia has details.) Theological debate continued in the centuries following, and though most Catholic Christians had held belief in the Assumption for quite some time, it wasn’t until 63 years ago—on November 1, 1950—that Pope Pius XII defined the Assumption of Mary to be an infallible dogma of faith.


In the East: Eastern Christians believe that the Virgin Mary died a natural death, and that her soul was received by Christ upon death. Three days following, Mary’s body was resurrected, and she was taken up into heaven, bodily. (Learn more from the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America and the Orthodox Church in America.)

In the West: Catholics are divided in thought as to whether or not Mary died, bodily, as this theory has not been dogmatically defined either way. (Global Catholic Network has more.)

To many Christians, Eastern and Western, the Assumption is also the Virgin Mary’s heavenly birthday. Mary’s acceptance into the glory of Heaven is viewed as the symbol of Christ’s promise that all devoted Christians will be received into Heaven, too. The feast of the Assumption is a public holiday in many countries, from Austria, Belgium, France and Germany to Italy, Romania and Spain. The day doubles as Mother’s Day in Costa Rica and parts of Belgium.

No details suggest the day or year of Mary’s Assumption, though it is believed that when Mary died, the Apostles flocked to her bedside. At the moment of her death, Jesus Christ descended, and carried her soul to Heaven.

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Categories: Christian

Hungry Ghost Festival: Also known as Vu Lan, Ullambana, Chugen or Obon

Lit stages, several levels, at nighttime in Taiwan

Cities light up for the (Hungry) Ghost Festival; pictured, a building in Taiwan. Photo by Wm Jas, courtesy of Flickr

SUNDAY, AUGUST 10: A fresh season, autumn harvest and hope for rebirth among ancestors—all of these themes culminate in the (Hungry) Ghost Festival. (Alternatively, the Ghost Festival is Vu Lan in Vietnam; Ullambana in Buddhism; Chugen, or Obon in Japan; and in Taiwan it is known, simply, as Ghost Month. Wikipedia has details.)

Scholars cannot identify a single, clear origin of the festival. Some point to Buddhist and Taoist texts; others point to stories in Chinese folklore—many of which are strikingly similar. In some regions, the traditions of these are mixed and the festivals celebrated together. Activities are most auspicious on the 15th day of the lunar month, but in many places, the Ghost Festival lasts an entire month.

Why the 15th day of the seventh lunar month? Following the three-month rains retreat, which had just recently ended, traditional stories say that monks greeted the Buddha. Most often, these stories indicate, this took place on, or around, the 15th day of the seventh lunar month. The monks had newfound understanding, learned from the deep meditation of the past few months. Buddha was extremely pleased with the number of monks that attained enlightenment during this time.

Among Buddhists, and in several other Asian cultures, the seventh lunar month is unique: The gates into the afterlife are opened, and ghosts are free to roam the earth. Buddhist monks and devotees pray for deceased parents of seven generations past. Honor is shown to parents as altars are prepared, extra food is set on the table and symbolic joss paper is shaped into auspicious objects and burned as offering. Participants hope to assist spirits in their journey to the next world. (Read more here.) Also on the 15th day of the seventh lunar month—translated into the Gregorian calendar, that is today, this year—services are held to pray for those who died suddenly or unexpectedly, in the understanding that their souls could not have adequately passed into the afterlife as a result.


Buddhist tradition tells of an accomplished disciple of Buddha who began searching for the spirit of his deceased mother. Seeing that she had fallen into the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, he desired to help her. The Buddha instructed the monk to make elaborate offerings to the Buddha and Sangha on the 15th day of the seventh lunar month, and that by the virtue of the Sangha, his mother’s soul would be spared. The monk followed the Buddha’s instructions, and saw his mother saved. (Read the Ullambana Sutra here.)

The festival comes to a close with a beautiful lantern ceremony, when people float their lanterns on nearby bodies of water, hoping to direct the ghosts back to the realm of the dead.

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Categories: BuddhistInternational Observances

Raksha Bandhan: Across India, brothers and sisters exchange rakhis

Hands and arms, tying a threaded bracelet onto another person

Tying a rakhi for Raksha Bandhan. Photo by Joe Athialy, courtesy of Flickr

SUNDAY, AUGUST 10: Today’s festival of Raksha Bandhan—celebrated across India and in Hindu communities worldwide—honors the sacred bonds between brothers and sisters. Over many centuries, the rakhi (from Sanskrit, “the tie or knot of affection”) has evolved from simple, handspun threads into bangles adorned in jewels, crystals, cartoon characters and even political figures.

The simple gift expresses renewed love between siblings and sometimes between others who share a bond of brotherhood. More than a century ago, the famous Indian writer Rabindranath Tagore suggested that Muslims and Hindus exchange rakhi as signs of peace and unity as Indians.

Typically, today, women present a rakhi to men and, in return, the men promise to protect the women who offer them a bracelet. (Learn more from the Society for the Confluence of Festivals in India.) Although usually associated with Hinduism, Raksha Banhan has reached a wider cultural status—often celebrated by Jains, Sikhs and even some Muslims across India, Mauritus, parts of Nepal and Pakistan.


Weeks before the culmination of Raksha Bandhan, Indian shops offer a bright palette of threads for women making their own rakhi. Shops also are stocked with colorful premade rakhi. The bracelet may be as plain or as opulent as the woman wishes, although most are adorned with some type of decoration at the middle. Men also shop market stands, searching for a token of love for their sisterly Raksha Bandhan companion.

The morning of the festival, brothers and sisters greet one another in, if possible, the presence of other family members. The sister ties a rakhi on her brother’s wrist, reciting prayers for his well-being and applying a colorful tilak mark to his forehead. The brother promises, in return, to protect his sister under all circumstances—even if she is married—and the two indulge in sweet foods. The brother presents the sister with a gift, and everyone present rejoices in the gladness of family. (Wikipedia has details.) When a brother and sister cannot be together on Raksha Bandhan, they often send each other cards and gifts for the occasion.

Interested in making your own rakhi? Find simple instructions here.


Designers from the brand “The Anouk” have created a rakhi collection this year suitable for use year-round, news sources report: Jewels, small messages, golden inlays and crystals adorn the bracelets.

Those in search of something less pricey are turning to the trendy designs bearing Angry Birds, Ben 10 and even the face of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Kids are choosing plastic straps, for practical purposes. Times of India also reports, however, that prices have ballooned 10 to 15 percent this year, as a result of an increased cost of labor.

Environmentally minded individuals can now choose an “Eco Rakhi,” from organic lifestyle brand Omved. These pieces are hand woven, and decorated with seeds and beads.

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Categories: Faiths of India

United Nations celebrates International Day of the World’s Indigenous People

Four men dressed in colorful headdresses and accessories

Kayopo chiefs, part of an indigenous people in Brazil. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

SATURDAY, AUGUST 9: Americans may confuse this late-summer United Nations observance, called the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, with the similarly named Indigenous People’s Day on October 13, each year in some parts of the U.S. The later holiday also stems from a United Nations proposal, which surfaced back in the 1970s. Americans marking the mid-October observance are trying to refocus attention away from Columbus Day.

This newer worldwide August 9 holiday is two decades old this year, first proposed by the United Nations General Assembly in 1994. Initially, the holiday was supposed to occur annually during the first International Decade of the World’s Indigenous People (1995-2005). Then, the observance was renewed for a second decade, supposedly ending this year but leaving open the possibility of future observances.

This year, the UN is promoting the theme, “Bridging the gap: implementing the rights of indigenous peoples.” Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon emphasized the participation of indigenous peoples in decision making at all levels, and especially in defining the post-2015 development agenda and Millennium Development Goals.

Did you know? There are approximately 370 million indigenous peoples in the world today.


A key committee of the World Bank’s governing board sparked serious opposition when presenting a draft policy statement that, according to almost 100 civil-society groups, will reverse decades of reforms designed to protect indigenous populations and sensitive ecosystems. (Read more from the Huffington Post or the Times of India.) A two-year review of the Bank’s social and environmental policies will take place before any policies are put into place, but voices worldwide are already speaking out against the draft’s contents.

In a commentary headlined, “Why the fashion headdress must be stopped,” the UK-based Guardian says that fake Native American headdresses also are drawing grave concern in Canada, at the moment. Dorian Lynskey writes, in part: “The Native American headdress is a common sight at festivals. It has also been appropriated by fashion brands and stars such as Pharrell Williams. But many are now fighting back against what they see as a crude act of racial stereotyping.” Lynskey reports that the movement to prevent wide-spread use of fake “war bonnets” may be gathering steam. “Last month, Pharrell Williams swiftly apologized for agreeing to wear a war bonnet on the cover of Elle magazine,” the report says.

Indigenous people argue that not only does the “fashion headdress” fail to recognize distinctions between different tribes, but it abuses the respect earned by those tribal members—only male chiefs—who are permitted to wear the headdress. Celebrities and companies have been making public apologies for their offenses, and festivals around the world are banning the use of the fake headdresses.

A World Conference on Indigenous Peoples will be held September 22-23, 2014.

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Categories: International Observances