New Year’s Eve

Tonight as you count down to midnight, if you’re wondering why we picked such a completely random date to celebrate as the New Year—neither solstice nor equinox nor anniversary—take a moment to thank the folks of Segeda, Spain, a town that stood near present-day Zaragoza.


Up until the 2nd century B.C., the Roman civic calendar began in mid-March, around the spring equinox and the beginning of the planting season; officials convened in Rome on the full moon (Ides) of that month.

The number of the year was determined by which consuls were in office that term. e.g., the “8th year of the term of Glutimus Maximus”. [We use a similar system today in the West, though we don’t generally say it’s the “2009th year of Our Lord Jesus Christ” (2009 Anno Domini Nostri Jesu Christi). We just say 2009 A.D.]

Around 154 BC. the Romans were extending their empire westward into Spain, which was then inhabited by the Celtiberians. That year the Celtiberians of Segeda, having no respect for the Roman civic calendar, inconveniently rebelled while the government was not in session.

Rather than waiting until March to respond, the Romans called an “emergency session of Congress”, so to speak, in January, in order to appoint Quintus Filvius Nobilior as consul to deal with the western territories. His mission: go to Spain and kick some Celtiberian butt.

Filvius wasn’t very successful. In fact, it would be a hundred years before the peninsula was fully subdued.

But the January tradition stuck.

Most folks continued to celebrate the New Year in March as they always had. (Persians still do celebrate Norouz on the spring equinox.) But over the centuries the Julian calendar–implemented by Julius Caesar–replaced the older agrarian traditions.

15 centuries later Pope Gregory XIII overhauled the calendar to correct the 11 extra leap days that had misaligned the Julian calendar from the solstice. Northern Europe was the last to adopt the new “Gregorian” system. Britain, and by extension, the American colonies, only did so in 1752. Before that, most of us still considered March to be the start of the New Year.  March 25 to be exact–believed to be the anniversary of the conception of Christ back in 1 A.D.

So had the folks of Segeda just been a little more patient and waited a couple of months to rebel, we might still be celebrating New Year’s in March.

But as it is, we toast a cup ‘o’ kindness on December 31, to days of Auld Lang Syne, and to the Celtiberians who made this night possible.

See you in 2012!

Why the Fuss of January 1?

The Celtiberian War and Numantia

Jose Rizal Day

December 30


1. A person having a speaking, reading, or writing knowledge of several languages.
2. A book, especially a Bible, containing several versions of the the same text in different languages.
3. A mixture or confusion of languages.

Today the people of the Philippines mourn the death and celebrate the life of their national hero Jose Rizal.

“I die without seeing the sun rise on my country. You who are to see the dawn, welcome it, and do not forget those who fell during the night.”

This eerily self-fulfilling prophecy was spoken not by Rizal, but by Elias, a character in Rizal’s great novel Noli Me Tangere, written almost a full decade before Rizal’s own execution.

Rizal wrote Noli Me Tangere (literally, “Touch Me Not”) at age 25. By that time Rizal had earned his Bachelor’s degree (at 16) in the Philippines; he had studied medicine at the University of Santo Thomas, but after witnessing discrimination against Filipino students, he sailed to Spain to complete his studies at the University of Madrid; he specialized in ophthalmology, due to his mother’s worsening blindness; and he earned a second doctorate at the University of Heidelberg.

I spend half of the day in the study of German,” Rizal wrote, “and the other half, in the diseases of the eye. Twice a week, I go to the bierbrauerie, or beerhall, to speak German with my student friends.

Rizal spoke at least a dozen languages–some sources say 22–including, Spanish, French, Latin, Greek, German, Portuguese, Italian, English, Dutch, Japanese. He translated works from Arabic, Swedish, Russian, Chinese, Greek, Hebrew, and Sanskrit into his native tongue of Tagalog. While in Germany, he was a member of the Anthropological Society of Berlin, for which he delivered a presentation in German on the structure and use of Tagalog.

But it was his novel Noli Me Tangere that would earn him fame in the Philippines and infamy in Spain.

Jose Rizal (Museum of California History)

Noli Me Tangere exposed the hypocrisy of the Spanish clergy in the Philippines and the injustices committed against native Filipinos. And his follow-up non-fiction work demonstrated that contrary to 300 years of colonialist teachings the Filipino people had been an accomplished nation before the Spanish set foot in the country. That in fact, colonization had resulted in a ‘retrogression’.

In response to Noli Me Tangere, clergy members circulated pamplets warning Catholics that reading the novel was equivalent to “committing mortal sin.”

The book was banned in many parts, and one anonymous “Friar” wrote to Rizal, “How ungrateful you are…If you, or for that matter all your men, think you have a grievance, then challenge us and we shall pick up the gauntlet, for we are not cowards like you, which is not to say that a hidden hand will not put an end to your life.

Rather than give in to harassment, Rizal followed it up with a sequel, El Filibusterismo. Rizal’s novels became a rallying point for nationalists in the Philippines. In Spain he continued to fight for equal rights and representation for his countrymen. Rizal returned to the Philippines in 1892. After a rebellion broke out, Rizal was arrested and sent into 4 years of exile.

While in exile in Dapitan he managed a hospital, provided services to the poor, taught language classes, and worked with soldiers to improve the area’s irrigation and agriculture.

In 1896 the Philippines Revolution broke out. Though Rizal emphasized non-violence in his works, he was again imprisoned, and this time sentenced to execution.

Just before his death, Rizal wrote his final poem, which he ‘smuggled’ out to his sister by hiding it in the stove in his cell. The poem has no title, but is often called “Mi ultimo adios”…My last good-bye.

“My idolized country, sorrow of my sorrows,
Beloved Filipinas, hear my last good-bye.
There I leave you all, my parents, my loves.
I’ll go where there are no slaves, hangmen nor oppressors,
Where faith doesn’t kill, where the one who reigns is God.”

–from Mi ultimo adios

He was executed by firing squad at 7:03 am on December 30, 1896, and buried without a coffin.

Rizal Monument, Manila; photo © Carlito Scholz

His tragic death only strengthened Filipino resolve for self-determination.

In April 1898, the fight for independence, led by Andres Bonifacio and Emilio Aguinaldo, received a boost from an unexpected party: the United States. The Spanish-American War, which had begun in Cuba, soon stretched to all of Spain’s remaining Pacific territories.

That summer the Philippines Army, headed by Aguinaldo, defeated Spanish troops, and handed over 15,000 Spanish prisoners to U.S. forces, along with valuable intelligence. Aguinaldo declared the Philippines an independent nation on June 12, 1898.

The Philippines soon found they had rid themselves of a demon only to make a deal with the devil. In defeat Spain ‘ceded’ the Philippines to the U.S., which immediately rejected Philippine independence. Whereas the Spanish had sought to bring Catholicism to the Philippines, the U.S. sought to bring “freedom” and “civilization”. The war that followed, the U.S.’s first overseas experiment in nation-building, took the lives of over a quarter million Filipinos (a low estimate), the overwhelming majority of them civilians. Disease and famine were a prime cause of civilian deaths. But torture, mass executions, internment camps, village-buring, and other atrocities against civilians were also staples of the war.

Battle of Paceo, Philippine-American War

The war officially ended in 1902, but fighting continued until 1913. English, spoken by a minority of Filipinos, was declared the official language.

The Philippines would not see independence until after World War II, fifty years after the death of Jose Rizal. Through that time and even to the present, Rizal and his writings continue to symbolize the Filipino spirit and their long fight for equality and self-determination.


Our Mother Tongue

The Tagalog language’s akin to Latin,
To English, Spanish, angelical tongue;
For God who knows how to look after us
This language He bestowed us upon.

As others, our language is the same
With alphabet and letters of its own,
It was lost because a storm did destroy
On the lake the bangka in years bygone.

Jose Rizal, age 8 (originally in Tagalog)

Jose Rizal Website

The Philippine-American War

Lessons from the Philippines “Insurrection”

Ujima & Ujamaa and Muhammad Nassardeen

December 28 & 29

December 28th and 29th are the 3rd and 4th days of Kwanzaa. The themes of these days are Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility) and Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics). On the surface these do not sound like the general feel-good (or feel-bad) sentiments that accompany most holidays. For the record, other days of the celebration include themes such as Unity, Purpose, and Faith–themes more consistent with older holidays. Ujima and Ujamaa may be overshadowed by these more traditional holiday themes, but all are equally important.

Umoja, or Unity, is the first step, asking the community to recognize itself as a united group.

Kujchagulia, Self-determination, asks the African-American community to define itself and its future on its own terms rather than through the eyes of others.

Ujima and Ujamaa are the nuts and bolts of the operation. They require not just talk but actual tangible steps to achieve.

One man who did just that was Muhammad Nassardeen. His organization Recycling Black Dollars was an effort to keep the money of the African-American community within the community. White neighborhoods recycle dollars 5 times. Latino communities recycle dollars 3 times. And Asian-American communities as much as nine times. But Nassardeen found that the African-American community recycled the average dollar less than 1 time.

By creating and encouraging businesses and organizations, including local churches, to bank and buy within the Los Angeles African-American community Nassardeen helped to increase the wealth of the community substantially.

Unfortunately Nassardeen died in October 2007 of a heart attack. But his contributions to Cooperative Economics are remembered this Kwanzaa in the city where Kwanzaa first greeted the world.

[originally published Dec. 29, 2007]


December 26 – January 1


God makes three requests of his children: Do the best you can, where you are, with what you have now.

— African-American Proverb

Originally intended as an Afrocentric alternative to Western holidays in the United States, Kwanzaa is now celebrated by people of African heritage in Europe and the Caribbean as well as by millions in Africa itself. The term Kwanzaa comes from the Kiswahili phrase “ya kwanzaa” meaning “first fruits.” The name refers to the ageless African tradition of harvesting the first fruits of the season. According to, “Kwanzaa is a time of year for black people to come together to celebrate the fruits of our labor during the past year.”

Other names you might hear today:

Mishumaa saba: the seven candles.

Nia: purpose

And perhaps most important: Nguzo Saba.

Nguzo Saba means Seven Principles, or Seven Reasons. The week-long celebration of Kwanzaa emphasizes one of the seven principles each day.

  • Umoja – Unity – Dec. 26
  • Kujichagulia – Self-Determination – Dec. 27
  • Ujima – Collective Work and Responsibility – Dec. 28
  • Ujamaa – Cooperative Economics – Dec. 29
  • Nia – Purpose – Dec. 30
  • Kuumba – Creativity – Dec. 31
  • Imani – Faith – Jan. 1

The Nguzo Saba are the “minimum set of values African Americans need to rescue and reconstruct their lives in their own image and interest and build and sustain an Afrocentric family, community and culture.” — Kwanzaa founder Maulana Karenga

The Kinara (candleholder) symbolizes African ancestors; The Mishumaa Saba (7 candles) symbolize the 7 Principles


On the first day of Kwanzaa African-Americans celebrate Umoja, or “unity”. It is the foundation of the seven Nguzo. Politicians often call upon “unity” as a slogan in the national arena, yet the concept of unity is overlooked within our communities and within the family.

Unity of the family is the building block of Umoja. It means unity of father and mother as role models for their children, and respect for one’s elders. Karenga notes that in many Western societies the elderly have been cast aside “leaving them with only failing memories.” African communities utilize the experience of their elders as judges and conflict resolvers. Their participation benefits both the society as a whole and the elders themselves.

A central purpose of Kwanzaa is to teach the younger generation about traditions that were passed down by Africans for countless generations, but were violently torn away during the slave trade and slavery. Marcus Garvey wrote:

A people without knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.

Umoja extends from family to community, from community to nation, and from nation to race. Applying the concept of umoja to the entire race is a difficult challenge. The African continent is home to over 50 nations. Each of these nations has not only its own ethnic identity, but several, often competing identities. And attempting to apply umoja to the entire continent and to all those descended from it is nothing less miraculous than uniting the entire planet.

But the principle of umoja is a practice as well as a principle. And the practice of umoja begins at home, one family at a time.

Tomorrow we celebrate the principle and the practice of Kujichagulia: Self-Determination…

Up you mighty race: accomplish what you will.

— Marcus Garvey

The first Kwanzaa stamp, 1997

Boxing Day

December 26

St. Stephen

“In London and other places, St. Stephen’s Day, or the 26th of December, is familiarly known as Boxing-day, from its being the occasion on which those annual guerdons known as Christmas-boxes are solicited and collected…

The Book of Days

As a child I thought it odd that the British, so seemingly refined (compared to us their American cousins), would dedicate the day after Christmas to such a brutal and pugilistic sport. Yet there it was on the calendar: “Boxing Day – UK”.

Apparently the holiday has very little to do with the sport, but everything to do with gift-giving. And no, it’s not about boxing up all the gifts you don’t want so you can return them to the store either.

According to The Book of Days (1882)…

“The institution of Christmas-boxes is evidently akin to that of New-year’s gifts, and, like it, has descended to us from the times of the ancient Romans, who, at the season of the Saturnalia, practised universally the custom of giving and receiving presents. The fathers of the church denounced, on the ground of its pagan origin, the observance of such a usage by the Christians; but their anathemas had little practical effect, and in process of time, the custom of Christmas-boxes and New-year’s gifts, like others adopted from the heathen, attained the position of a universally recognised institution. The church herself has even got the credit of originating the practice of Christmas-boxes…

“…Christmas-boxes are still regularly expected by the postman, the lamplighter, the dustman, and generally by all those functionaries who render services to the public at large, without receiving payment therefor from any particular individual. There is also a very general custom at the Christmas season, of masters presenting their clerks, apprentices, and other employes, with little gifts, either in money or kind.

“St. Stephen’s Day, or the 26th of December, being the customary day for the claimants of Christmas-boxes going their rounds, it has received popularly the designation of Boxing-day.”

Boxing-night was a night of much joy and revelry. The Book of Days goes on to tell us that “the theatres are almost universally crowded to the ceiling on Boxing-night” as the pockets of the working class are stuffed with recently received year-end bonuses.

You can also find some packed pubs and bars on Boxing Day, as celebrants, having spent 24-48 hours with family, join their friends to bid a fond farewell to the Christmas season, if not the Christmas spirit.

[Of course , Boxing Day is actually only the second day of the twelve days of Christmas, so the season doesn’t technically end until Epiphany on January 6.]

Jesus: Happy 2011th–2015th?–2019th?…

December 25

Behold! the angels said, ‘Oh Mary! God gives you glad tidings of a Word from Him. His name will be Christ Jesus, the son of Mary, held in honour in this world and the Hereafter, and in (the company of) those nearest to God.

— Qur’an 3:45

Nativity, Gerard von Honthorst (1590-1656)

Today we celebrate Jesus Christ’s 2011th birthday.

Actually, no.

We don’t know the year Jesus was born. But it’s believed he was born at least four years prior to the year we count as 1 A.D. because King Herod the Great, whom Matthew cites as king when Jesus was born, died in 3 or 4 BC.

One theory for this discrepancy is that Dionysius Exiguus–the sixth century monk who created the A.D. dating system (short for Anno Domini Nostri Jesu Christi or “in the year of our Lord Jesus Christ”)–forgot to calculate the four-year reign of Emperor Octavian when adding up the years since the birth of Christ. Thus, the year he deduced to be 525 AD should have been 529.

Another theory states that Jesus was born even earlier, since the census that Luke mentions as the time of Jesus’s birth [This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria – Luke 2:2] occurred every fourteen years. Working backward, historians figured the first census would have been conducted in 8 BC.

So you see, we’re already in the future: 2019 AD.

But whether we’re wishing Jesus a happy 2011th, 2015th or 2019th birthday, we’re almost certainly celebrating the wrong day.

There’s no hint in the Gospels as to the day or even the season of Christ’s birth. A fact which has led some Christian denominations to exclaim that, had God wanted us to celebrate the birthday of the Lord, He would have given us some indication of the date.

In 4000 Years of Christmas, Episcopalian minister and scholar Earl Count recounts that the Romans celebrated December 25 as the birthday of the Sun God Mithra, a tradition inherited from Persian Mithraism. Similarly, the Annunciation of Christ, observed 9 months earlier on March 25, coincided with the Spring Equinox, which was celebrated as the New Year in the Near East.

In fact, Dionysius himself never considered the first day of the Christian era to be Christ’s birth—theoretically December 25, 1 AD—but Christ’s conception—aka, the Annunciation—on March 25.

That led to some confusion. As late as 18th century the English still marked March 25 as the start of the calendar year. (i.e., March 24, 1699 was followed by March 25, 1700. Yes, these are the people that cursed us with the Imperial measurement system of feet and pounds.)

In the United States, Christmas–a holiday once banned by the Puritans–has far outstripped the popularity of the Annunciation, or any holiday for that matter, partially due to its potential for consumerism in the 19th and 20th centuries. Which has led the folks at The Good News to ask, not how can we put the Christ back into Christmas, but “How can we put Jesus back into the season when He was never part of it to begin with?

Well, regardless of how Christmas was created, it has become the de facto time to observe the principles taught by Jesus nearly 2000 years ago in a troublesome Roman backwater. Christmastime is the season of Faith, Hope, and Charity.

Some Christians say they wish Christmas could last all year. Others say that Christmas’s pagan roots mean we shouldn’t celebrate it at all. I’m inclined to agree with the former. If we don’t know which day of the 365 is the real Christmas, best to hedge our bets, and make every day a holy day.


‘Twas the Night Before Christmas…

December 24

‘Twas the night before Christmas
And all through the store
Not a register was empty
Nor an inch of the floor

For the men of the nation
Had converged on this spot
To buy all the presents
They should’ve already bought.

Today my co-workers complimented me on my resistance to all the goodies lying around the office. It wasn’t resistance; it’s just that at this point my body weight is 90% chocolate, and the remaining ten is sugar.

My boss let us out early today (4:30) which gave me an hour and a half to do all my Christmas shopping.

Single women, if you want to find a man, go to any mall in America after 5pm on Christmas Eve. The stores are chock full of them. Take your pick. You will know one of these shoppers is a male because he has the same expression as a parachuter who has just been dropped in Uzbekistan with a map of Disneyland and a purse.

Believe it or not, there was a time when Christmas Eve was not associated with frantic mobs scavenging through Toys R Us for the last Diaper-Me Elmo, or whatever the current craze is.

That time was 1866. The following year, Macy’s department store remained open Christmas Eve until midnight for last minute shoppers, thus setting in motion the downward spiral that has consumed our society.

You’ll notice with a lot of Saints’ Days, that the “Eves” before are still more important than the Days themselves. The same goes for many Jewish, Muslim and Hindu holidays. In many calendars, the day once began at sunset, a time much easier for farmers to deduce than 11:59 pm.

Some “Eves” were celebrated reverently with a mass at church. But many an Eve developed a reputation for merry-making. For example, Saint Nick’s Eve when townspeople would dress a boy up as a clergyman–a “Boy-Bishop” he was called–who would imitate a priest, much to the delight of onlookers. Sometimes mobs would sing bawdy songs while careening drunkenly through the streets in a haphazard procession, often harassing the social elite in the process.

Boy Bishop
Boy Bishop

This led to King Henry VIII’s infamous “party-pooper” decree:

Whereas heretofore divers and many superstitions and chyldysh observances have be used, and yet to this day are observed and and kept…as upon Saint Nicholas, Saint Catherine, Saint Clement, the Holy Innocents, and such like, children be strangelie decked and apparayled to counterfeit priests, bishoppes, and women, as so be ledde with songes and daunces from house to house, blessing the people and gatherying of money; and boyes do singe masse and preache in the pulpitt…

The Kynges Maiestie therefore, myndinge nothinge so moche as to advance the true glory of God without vaine superstition, wylleth and commandeth that from henceforth all such superstitious observations be left and clerely extinguished throwout his realmes and dominions, for asmuch as the same doth resemble rather the unlawfull superstition of gentilitie, than the pure and sincere religion of Christe.”

Of course, the King’s piety didn’t stop him from beheading his wives (or improve his spellyng). After the King’s death, his Roman-Catholic daughter Queen Mary rescinded the ban in 1554.

During Christmastime the ancient spirit of Saturnalia came out to play under the guise of Christianity, leading one 16th century Anglican bishop to pronounce, “Men dishonour Christ more in the twelve days of Christmas, than in all the twelve months besides.”

Oliver Cromwell banned the celebration of Christmas altogether between 1649 and 1660. And the Puritans in Massachusetts followed suit in 1659.

Rituals like those described above evolved into what we call “wassailing”. Members of the impoverished gentry would sing outside the residences of the social elite, asking, sometimes rather persuasively, for money, or at least booze—a cross between trick-or-treating and Christmas caroling, and the forerunner of both. (It was also a time for servants to impose upon their masters for tips, much like today’s Christmas bonuses.)

But according to Stephen Nissenbaum, author of The Battle for Christmas, it was a group of early 19th century aristocrats–disturbed by the uncouth December rituals of the gentry–who implemented many of the family-friendly traditions now associated with Christmas in North America. Jock Elliot in Inventing Christmas calls 1823 to 1848 the “Big Bang” of Christmas traditions. Chief among these: Saint Nicholas’s annual reindeer-powered sleigh jaunt on Christmas Eve, immortalized in Clement Clarke Moore’s “A Visit From Saint Nicholas” in 1822 and in Washington Irving’s short Christmas stories.

Santa Claus by Thomas Nast

Nissembaum theorizes that Santa Claus served as a “Judgment Day” primer for children. Be good and get presents. Be bad and get coal. A more tangible way for parents to introduce their kids to Christian doctrine before jumping straight into Eternal Damnation. [The unintended flipside being that children, after learning “the truth” about Santa, may grow to apply the same lesson to the Judge Himself.]

Nearly 200 years later, through the miracle of modern technology we can track Santa’s journey in real time as he darts across six continents at 100 times the speed of a bullet train, according to the North American Air Defense Command, aka NORAD.

NORAD’s been tracking Santa’s Christmas Eve trips since 1955. According to legend, that was the year…

…a Sears store, at the time known as Sears Roebuck and Company, placed Christmas advertising that included a phone number where children could reach Santa Claus. The only problem was that the phone number was printed incorrectly. Why Does NORAD track Santa

Yes, the kids reached NORAD. Bombarded with calls, Air Defense personnel checked the radar and informed the children of Santa’s whereabouts.

As for me, I’m off to the land where the sugar-plums dance. So Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night!

George Washington’s Christmas Gift

December 23

Washington resigns as General

On this day in 1783, the most powerful man in the Western Hemisphere, the Commander-in-Chief of the Army of the United States who had achieved independence from Britain, the world’s strongest superpower, voluntarily surrendered his sword and his title to the Continental Congress in Annapolis, Maryland. He returned to his home in Mount Vernon, Virginia, expecting to live a quiet farm life.

His plans were derailed a few years later when he was elected to serve as President of the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia.

Maryland to Unveil Washington’s Resignation Speech
George Washington’s Resignation Speech – 7MB file