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

“For love of their country they accepted death, and thus resolved all doubts, and made immortal their patriotism and their virtue.”
James A. Garfield, May 30, 1868, Arlington National Cemetery

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 25: 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 veteran stories and pay respect to fallen soldiers.

This year, you can salute veterans by learning more about their lives, thanks to a new book from the Michigan State University School of Journalism—learn about that book’s debut in this story by MSU’s journalism professor Joe Grimm.

Originally called Decoration Day, this national holiday began after the Civil War and became a federal holiday in 1971. Interestingly, the same number of people who attended the first ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery—approximately 5,000—is the same number that attends today.


In the 1960s, veterans activists from Waterloo, New York, succeeded in achieving widespread acknowledgement as the official birthplace of Memorial Day. The holiday had been observed in Waterloo since 1866.

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.

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.

Our ReadTheSpirit magazine—and this Holidays column—has been in the journalistic forefront of correcting that historical record by reporting over many years on the research of historian Stephen Blight. If you care to delve more deeply into that story of courageous former slaves who held the first Memorial Day-type observance in 1865, click on the historic photo or right here to jump back to some of our earlier coverage. Blight dug deep into archives and 19th-century newspaper accounts to document that “first.”

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 May 30 to the last Monday in May.

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. A National Moment of Remembrance is observed at 3 p.m. local time. In the evening, the National Memorial Day Concert takes place on the west lawn of the United States Capitol, and is broadcast live on PBS and NPR. This year, the concert will commemorate the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII, tribute children who have lost a parent to war and feature performers including Gloria Estefan. (Learn more here.)


As Memorial Day unofficially kicks off summer in the United States, many Americans travel during the three-day weekend. This year, AAA projects 37.2 million travelers on Memorial Day weekend—the highest travel volume for the holiday in 10 years—with 33 million traveling by automobile. Experts point to low gas prices, higher employment rates and a cold winter season as likely reasons for higher travel averages.

  • Support troops, locate a memorial monument and find sheet music for Patriotic songs at
  • Decorate or host a Memorial Day get-together with tips from Martha Stewart.
  • Find grilling, boating and safety tips, travel advisories and all-American recipes at
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Categories: National Observances

Pentecost: Red flowers and doves for birthday of the Christian church

“And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them.”
Acts 2

Church altar draped in red cloth with dove and flames on it, candles on top of cloth

An altar decorated for Pentecost. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

SUNDAY, MAY 24: The ancient feast of Pentecost is marked with red drapery and vestments, symbols of the Holy Spirit, processions and holy sacraments. Though Pentecost originates from the Greek translation of the Jewish springtime festival now celebrated as Shauvot, it has been observed by Christians for centuries, and falls precisely seven weeks after Easter. The Christian Pentecost commemorates the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles, women and other followers of Jesus, giving them the ability to speak in many languages for the purpose of spreading the Word of God. In this manner, some Christians regard Pentecost as the “birthday of the Church.”

Note: This year, Pentecost is observed by the Eastern Orthodox Christian Church on May 31, as Pascha (Easter) fell one week after the Western Christian Easter.

Pentecost used to be widely associated with baptisms, and took on the name Whitsunday, or White Sunday. The day following is known as Whit Monday, and was traditionally a public holiday.


NBC AD The Bible ContinuesThis spring, the popularity of Christian TV dramas drew headlines before Easter and Christianity hasn’t left prime time. Currently, a cinematic version of the church’s ancient story is unfolding in the NBC series A.D. The Bible Continues. Network TV moves so fast that the Pentecost story actually aired on April 19 in an episode called “The Spirit Arrives.” (You can wait and catch it in reruns or find the episode online.) The debut run of this 9-part TV series ends Sunday, May 31, with stories from the ministry of St. Paul. This kind of popular religious media is a significant trend in the way American’s are exploring their faith these days, writes FaithGoesPop columnist Ken Chitwood.


According to the Book of Acts and Christian tradition: Approximately 120 followers of Christ were gathered on the morning that the Pentecost took place, in the Upper Room. At approximately 9 a.m. one morning, a roar of wind came into the room, and tongues of fire descended upon those in the room. With the gift of the tongues of fire, those gathered believed evidence of the presence of the Holy Spirit; they began speaking many different languages. (Learn more from Catholic Culture.) Peter proclaimed the fulfillment of a prophesy.

When the group left the Upper Room, a crowd had gathered. While some accused the followers of Christ of sputtering drunken babble, Peter corrected them and declared that an ancient prophesy had been fulfilled. When the crowds asked what they could do, Peter told the people to repent and be baptized—which thousands did.

Rose petals strewn on floor

Rose petals fill a Roman church on Pentecost. Photo by Stefano Costantini, courtesy of Flickr


Pentecost services in the Western Christian Church often involve red flowers, vestments and banners, all representing the Holy Spirit and tongues of fire. Trumpets and brass ensembles may depict the sound of the “mighty wind” in a musical manner. There is even a tradition of Holy Ghost holes in the roofs of churches, so that the Holy Spirit could “descend” upon the congregation; at Pentecost, the holes were decorated and a dove was lowered into the church. (Wikipedia has details.) In Italy, rose petals scattered from above represent the fiery tongues; in parts of England, Whit Fairs and Morris dancing were commonplace on Whitsunday, or Penecost.


In a United Methodist Church outside of Chicago, red kites will be flown at the 9 a.m. Pentecost service in visual representation of the need to be “lively and soaring,” reports the Rev. Jan Comerford. (Chicago Tribune reported.) In centuries past, walking through morning dew was custom on Whitsunday morning. Today, families can put a new twist on a Medieval tradition by scattering their dining table with red rose petals and suspending a representation of a dove over their dining table. (Learn more from Fish Eaters.) In London, many churches are hosting community events for Pentecost, to relay the “Good News” to others.


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Categories: Christian

Shavuot: Cheesecake and the Book of Ruth close the Counting of the Omer

Cheesecake with chocolate ganache and fresh berries on top

Cheesecake is a popular dessert for Shavuot. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

SUNSET SATURDAY, MAY 23: The days of counting have ended and the Festival of Weeks has finally arrived: It’s Shavuot, the Jewish festival marking the reception of the Torah at Mount Sinai. Since the second day of Passover, devout Jews have been dutifully counting each day—with the “omer,” a unit of measure—to illustrate the important link between Passover and Shavuot. Duly, it was in the days of the Temple that Shavuot also celebrated the wheat harvest, when pilgrims would travel from far and wide to ceremoniously present the Bikkurim (first fruits) and new wheat crop in Jerusalem.

Note: Shavuot is celebrated for one day in Israel, and for two days in the Diaspora.

Our coverage of this holiday, which is little known outside the Jewish community, involves three of our writers, this week …

First, since Shavuot’s most memorable custom in Jewish homes involves food—Bobbie Lewis devotes her FeedTheSpirit column to the holiday (and includes a delicious recipe for a rustic vegetable tart with goat cheese).

Second, before regular Holidays columnist Stephanie Fenton provides some of her timely links to share with friends—we’ve asked the Jewish scholar and publisher Joe Lewis (Bobbie’s husband) to provide his perspective on Shavuot:

“There’s an old story about the Baal Shem Tov, founder of Chasidism, the mystical pietistic strain of Judaism. When the Jewish community were threatened, he would go to a secret place in the forest, light a fire, and say a special prayer—and the danger would pass. His disciples passed on what they could, but as generations came and went they could no longer find the secret place, light the special fire or remember the words of the prayer. Only the story remained, but even that was powerful enough to save the people.

Shavuot was once a harvest holiday, but in their tragic history the Jewish people were expelled from their farmland, and their agricultural holidays lost their immediate meaning. The Torah instructs us to count each day from Passover, the spring festival, to Shavuot, the early harvest. A farmer could watch seeds sprout and grow, thankful for each day of favorable weather and anxious for the next. Such meaning is a memory hard to recapture.

The meaning of many Shavuot customs has faded. Why do we mourn in the period of counting, mark Shavuot as the anniversary of the Revelation at Sinai, eat dairy foods or read the story of Ruth? We offer explanations, but they are not conclusive. The gesture remains but its meaning escapes us; we live in loss. Still, as we seek to recapture the ancient significance, we instill our customs with fresh relevance, even if we can only tell the elusive story of the vibrant past.”


Holidays columnist Stephanie Fenton adds …

Modern observance of Shavuot includes the decoration of homes and synagogues with festive greenery. Tradition says that this floral décor stems from long-repeated accounts that Mount Sinai blossomed with flowers in anticipation of the giving of the Torah on its summit.

Row of cheese blintzes with raspberry sauce drizzled over all

Cheese blintzes with raspberry sauce. Photo by Eliza Adam, courtesy of Flickr

Several explanations are offered regarding the consumption of dairy on Shavuot—among them that King Solomon referred to the Torah as “like honey and milk”—and cheese blintzes, cheesecakes, milk and more are commonplace on the Shavuot table. (Wikipedia has details.)

According to other traditional stories, the night before the Torah was given, the Israelites went to bed early and then overslept; to mend this act, many Jews stay up all night on Shavuot to study the Torah. In Jerusalem, it has been custom since 1967 to gather at the Western Wall before dawn and join the sunrise minyan that follows the all-night Torah study.

Seven ways to start family traditions for Shavuot are shared in this article by JWeekly, but by way of cuisine, several sources dish up cheesecakes and blintzes for every taste:

  • Sweet and savory recipes—including an indulgent Rugelach Bread Pudding Cheesecake—are at My Jewish Learning.
  • Going light on dairy? Incorporate dairy with an accent of cheese instead of the whole block, with these recipe ideas from JewishVoiceNY.
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Categories: Jewish

Declaration of the Bab: A joyous Baha’i holiday and news from Wilmette

Overview of elaborate gardens and large white building with domed top over busy city

The Shrine of the Bab in Haifa, Israel. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

SUNDOWN FRIDAY, MAY 22: Baha’i communities across the globe commemorate the anniversary of the Declaration of the Bab, made on this night in 1844. Though the roots of this story began decades earlier—in 1783, precisely—it was not until this pivotal night that the Bab correctly answered a series of questions that revealed he was the Promised One. Mulla Husayn became the first to accept the Bab’s claims, and soon after, followers of the Bab became known as Babis.


According to Baha’i tradition: The search for “the Gate” began years before the Bab’s birth, in 1783, with a man named Shaykh Ahmad-i-ahsa’i. He began traveling through Persia with the announcement that a great day was coming: a day that would see a Promised One. Later, a follower of his teachings, Mulla Husayn,—who would find the Bab. (For details, visit Though the identity of the Promised One remained secret, it was through a series of descriptions, questions and seemingly impossible tasks that Persian merchant Siyyid Ali Muhammad Shirazi convinced Mulla Husayn that he was the bearer of divine knowledge. This evening is now celebrated by Baha’is as the Declaration of the Bab. (For a meditative prayer set to music, visit New York Bahai.)

Large white domed building with still pool in front

The Baha’i temple in Wilmette, Ill., is the only temple of its kind in the United States. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Following the 1844 proclamations, which were later made public, Siyyid Ali Muhammad Shirazi took the name of the Bab (Arabic for “gate”) and began writing. The Bab penned his messianic claims, teachings and new religious law. In a few short years, the Bab had acquired thousands of followers. (Learn more from the Baha’i Blog.) Starkly opposed by other clergy and the government, thousands of Babis were persecuted and killed. In 1850, at the age of 30, the Bab was executed by a firing squad—though not before finding Baha’u’llah, the founder of the Baha’i faith and the messenger of God whom the Bab had spoken of.

IN THE NEWS: Iran to Wilmette

The Baha’i International Community recently launched a campaign that marked the seventh anniversary of the imprisonment of seven former Baha’i leaders in Iran; events took place in communities worldwide. (International Business Times reported.) From protests in Rio de Janeiro to reports by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, it is evident that religious freedoms in Iran have continued to decline in the past year. For the week-long campaign, each day will be dedicated to a different Baha’i prisoner.

Near Chicago, the Wilmette Baha’i Temple opened its highly anticipated welcome center. (World Religion News has the story.) The Baha’i temple has been the only one of its kind in America since 1953, and the welcome center is the first major addition to the building.

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Categories: Baha'i

Learn more about our world on International Day of Families

A family in South Africa helped by UN

The UN has been working for years on the rights of women and the rights of women and children in families. This photo shows a family in South Africa that was part of a program supported by both UN and groups in the UK.

FRIDAY, MAY 15: Don’t expect parades or special holiday dishes for the United Nation’s International Day of Families, an annual observance that has its roots in UN programs during the 1980s and finally was proclaimed as a global event in 1993. More than 20 years later, the special Day of Families is an occasion for education and sharing the latest challenges faced in households around the world.

Because of the UN initiative, the Day of Families is highlighted in workshops, TV and radio programs, newspaper and magazine articles and in special UN-sponsored events. To shape the educational message, the UN issues annual themes. For 2015, the theme “gender equality,” highlighting specifically the plight of women and children in many male-dominated cultures around the world.

The most helpful resource provided by the UN this year is a free. downloadable, 5-page “Background Note,” designed to share global issues and spark discussion. You can read it online here, and then can save a copy in PDF format. It’s a great, short primer for use in your own local discussion groups.

Some of the data cited in the 5-page summary:

  • In 26 out of 143 countries, statutory inheritance laws differentiate between women and men.
  • In 27 countries, women cannot confer their nationality to their children and/or foreign spouses on equal basis with men.
  • Early, child and enforced marriage remains prevalent in South Asia and Sub Saharan Africa and to some extent in Latin American countries. Girls tend to marry older men and become mothers long before they are physically or emotionally ready.
  • More than 125 million girls and women have undergone some form of female genital mutilation in 29 countries in Africa and the Middle East in 2013 with 31 million girls at risk of being cut in the next decade.
  • Nearly half of all homicide victims are killed by their intimate partner or family members, a pattern that also includes practices like “honor killings” and other practices difficult to prosecute in some parts of the world.
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Categories: Uncategorized

Feast of the Ascension: Christians look to Mount of Olives 40 days after Easter

Jesus glowing, in white, standing on grass with disciples on ground bowing and gesturing

An artist’s image of Waiting for the Word, courtesy of Flickr

THURSDAY, MAY 14: As Pentecost approaches, the Christian Church observes a pivotal feast central to the faith since its earliest days: the Feast of the Ascension, known also as Ascension Day. On this date—or, as some Roman Catholic churches have obtained Vatican permission to hold services on the Sunday following—Christians commemorate the bodily ascension of Jesus into Heaven. Each year, the Feast of the Ascension takes place on the 40th day after Easter. Though no documents give testament to the feast’s existence prior to the 5th century, St. Augustine referred to it as a universal observance of Apostolic origin.


On the 40th day after Jesus’s Resurrection, it’s believed that he gathered with his disciples on the Mount of Olives and blessed them there. Jesus asked them to wait for the fulfillment of the promise of the Holy Spirit, to be witnesses and to “make disciples of all nations.” (Find readings for the feast and more from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.) Jesus then ascended into Heaven, when, according to the story as recounted in Acts: Jesus was lifted up in a cloud.

The feast’s Latin term, ascensio, indicates the belief that Christ was raised up by his own powers. Traditionally, beans and fruits were blessed on this feast day, and the Paschal candle’s flame is quenched. (Wikipedia has details.) In some churches, the Christ figure was lifted through an opening in the roof on the Feast of the Ascension.

Activities: It is customary to eat a type of bird on this day, to represent Christ’s “flight” to Heaven. As Jesus ascended from the Mount of Olives, it is also common—in hilly or mountainous areas—to picnic on a hilltop. (Find more ideas from FishEaters.)

Note: In the Eastern Orthodox Christian Church, the Feast of the Ascension takes place on May 21, in accordance with 40 days after Pascha (Easter).

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Categories: Christian

Mother’s Day: Give a personalized tribute to Mom for Anna Jarvis’ holiday

Mother and daughter, back to camera, walking hand-in-hand in sunny cornfield

Photo courtesy of Pixabay

SUNDAY, MAY 10: In 1908, a small church service in West Virginia gave birth to the American version of Mother’s Day—today, a national holiday that grosses billions of dollars in flowers, gifts and cards, and pays homage to the millions of mothers across the country.

Though versions of the current American Mother’s Day predated its creation—and, worldwide, several variations have existed for centuries—our modern American Mother’s Day will celebrate its 101st year in 2015. Ironically, the primary advocate of the first Mother’s Day—Anna Jarvis—soon regretted having petitioned so persistently for the holiday, as the commercialism that rapidly followed its ascent was a stark contrast to the small-scale, personalized holiday that had originally been envisioned. Nonetheless, experts attest that had it not been for the early commercialization of Mother’s Day, it—like other smaller holidays of its time—would likely have fizzled out.

The first “official” service took place at the Andrews Methodist Episcopal Church in Grafton, West Virginia. At this church, Anna Jarvis honored her mother, who had been a Sunday School teacher at the location. By 1914, President Woodrow Wilson had set aside the second Sunday in May as Mother’s Day.

Care to learn more? This tiny church, built in 1873, became the site of an International Mother’s Day Shrine in the 1960s. Wikipedia has the details about this tourist destination that was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1992.


Woman in middle being kissed by two children, with silly look on her face

Photo by Theresa Martell, courtesy of Flickr

During the 1850s, Ann Reeves Jarvis of West Virginia held Mother’s Day work clubs to improve sanitation conditions, lower rates of infant mortality, fight disease and contamination and assist other mothers. When the Civil War broke out, women in these clubs looked after wounded soldiers. Following the Civil War, Jarvis and others organized Mother’s Friendship Day picnics, as a means of uniting citizens from both sides of the former Union and Confederacy. (Wikipedia has details.) Julia Ward Howe—composer of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”—went a step further, and publicly encouraged women to take an active political role in fostering peace.

Upon the death of Ann Reeves Jarvis in 1905, her daughter, Anna Jarvis, was prompted to organize a tribute service for her at her church. Jarvis distributed hundreds of carnations—her mother’s favorite flower—to mothers at Andrews Methodist Episcopal Church, in Grafton. With financial backing for the holiday from Philadelphia department store owner John Wanamaker, thousands of people attended a Mother’s Day event at one of Wanamaker’s retail stores in 1908.

Jarvis worked tirelessly to establish a national day for mothers, and by 1912, many states had adopted the holiday. (Learn more from Jarvis established the Mother’s Day International Association for her cause and, in 1914, President Woodrow Wilson officially established Mother’s Day as the second Sunday in May.

Despite every intention by Jarvis, Mother’s Day became an enormously profitable holiday for the retail industry, confectioners and florists. The U.S. National Restaurant Association now reports Mother’s Day as the most popular holiday for dining out, and Hallmark reports the holiday as trailing only Christmas and Valentine’s Day in the volume of cards exchanged. The American version of Mother’s Day is currently also celebrated in Canada, Australia and New Zealand.


  • View President Woodrow Wilson’s Mother’s Day Proclamation, here.
  • Free Mother’s Day sermon ideas, available for a variety of denominations, are at
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Categories: National Observances