Prohibition Remembrance Day

January 16


Blessed are you, Lord, our God, King of the universe, who creates the fruit of the vine.

— Hebrew Kiddush

January 17 is the birthday of three of the most iconic Americans ever: Benjamin Franklin, Muhammad Ali, and Al Capone.

On January 16, 1919, the day before Alphonse Capone’s 20th birthday, the United States bestowed upon the new father and husband the best birthday present he could ever wish for: the 18th Amendment.

Having been ratified by the required 36 states, the 18th amendment declared that a year from its passage, the sale, manufacture and transportation of alcohol would be illegal in the United States. Hence, on January 17, 1920, at 12:01 am the Prohibition Era began.

Thanks to Prohibition, Al Capone became the most infamous bootlegger and gangster in U.S. history, until he was convicted, not of racketeering, murder, or bootlegging, but of income tax evasion.

Moral of the story: If you’re gonna break every law in the book, don’t mess with the IRS.

The 18th Amendment was repealed in 1933. By that time Capone was enjoying a ten-year vacation overlooking the San Francisco Bay from Alcatraz prison, courtesy of the U.S. Department of Justice.

Many folks celebrate Prohibition Remembrance Day on January 16, the last day it was legal to drink in 1920. (Technically you could still consume alcohol after January 16, 1920. You just couldn’t make it, sell it, transport it, import it or export it.) Since January 16 is also Religious Freedom Day, I suggest combining the two and celebrating Get Drunk and Pray Day. As Benjamin Franklin is attributed as saying:

Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.

— not Benjamin Franklin

Although countless sources attribute the above quote to Ben, he wasn’t a beer guy. He was a wino. What he actually wrote was:

“In vino veritas”, says the wise man, “Truth is in wine.”

Before the days of Noah, then, men, having nothing but water to drink, could not discover the truth.  Thus they went astray, became abominably wicked, and were justly exterminated by water, which they loved to drink.

The good man Noah, seeing that through this pernicious beverage all his contemporaries had perished, took it in aversion; and to quench his thirst God created the vine, and revealed to him the means of converting its fruit into wine.  By means of this liquor he discovered numberless important truths; so that ever since his time the word to “divine” has been in common use, signifying originally,  to discover by means of WINE. (VIN) Thus the patriarch Joseph took upon himself to “divine” by means of a cup or glass of wine, a liquor which obtained this name to show that it was not of human but “divine” invention… nay, since that time, all things of peculiar excellence, even the Deities themselves, have been called “Divine” or Di-“vin”-ities.

We hear of the conversion of water into wine at the marriage in Cana as of a miracle.  But this conversion is, through the goodness of God, made every day before our eyes.  Behold the rain which descends from heaven upon our vineyards; there it enters the roots of the vines, to be changed into wine; a constant proof that God loves us, and loves to see us happy.

— Benjamin Franklin, letter to André Morellet, 1779

What Benjamin Franklin Didn’t Say About Beer

That Ben Franklin Quote

Pongal – Day 3 – Mattu Pongal

January 16

Mattu Pongal, the third day of the Pongal festival of southern India, is dedicated to the animals of the world, particularly cattle.

The legend goes, Shiva told his bull Basava, or Nandi, to inform the people of the world that they should eat once a month and bathe daily with an oil massage.

Evidently, Bull was not the best messenger. He told the people to eat daily and bathe once a month.

When Shiva heard this he was furious, so he forced Bull to return to earth and help the people plow, where he’s been ever since. That way they’d have food enough to eat each day.

There’s a belief in western society that Indians “worship” the cow. This is a misconception, perhaps propagated by the activities on Mattu Pongal. On this day cows do get the royal treatment: they’re bowed down to, painted, decorated with care, and they are offered Pongal, the rice dish for which the festival gets its name. The cows are symbolic of all animals on earth.

But they are not worshipped in the English sense of the word. Cows are considered special in the sense that they cannot be slaughtered. Part of the reason for this is that the cows already give so much back to the people through their milk. Another historical, practical reason may have been that the killing of the best cows for their meat reduced the genetic diversity of the herd.

A third, more controversial theory is that in the Sanskrit of the Vedas the word Go, meant “light” or “sense” as well as “cow.” Thus, the phrase “Protector of the Brahmanas and the Light” was interpreted as “Protector of the Cow.” [But this sounds to me like the story of the Catholic priest who, after a life of being celibate (no sex), goes to up heaven and gets to read Jesus’s original instructions on how to live the life a priest. He’s furious when he reads the original translation: “A priest should be pure and celebrate.”]

At any rate, Holy Cow is misleading. More like “Venerated Cow.” As Gandhi put it:

“One can measure the greatness of a nation and its moral progress by the way it treats its animals. Cow protection to me is not mere protection of the cow. It means protection of all that lives and is helpless and weak in the world.

Why is the cow sacred?

Religious Freedom Day – US

January 16

“Our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions, any more than our opinions in physics or geometry.”

–Thomas Jefferson, The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, 1786

On January 16th, the day after Martin Luther King’s birthday, Americans reflect on the above quote from Thomas Jefferson, from the Statute adopted on this in 1786. The holiday is not an official annual celebration, but must be proclaimed by the President each year.

The principles Thomas Jefferson enumerated in the Virginia Statute would be echoed five years later in the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights, 45 words that shaped a nation.


Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom

Whereas Almighty God hath created the mind free…

…that the impious presumption of legislators and rulers, civil as well as ecclesiastical, who being themselves but fallible and uninspired men, have assumed dominion over the faith of others…hath established and maintained false religions over the greatest part of the world, and through all time;

that to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves, is sinful and tyrannical;

that our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions, any more than our opinions in physics or geometry;

that therefore the proscribing any citizen as unworthy…unless he profess or renounce this or that religious opinion, is depriving him injuriously of those privileges and advantages to which…he has a natural right;

that it tends only to corrupt the principles of that religion it is meant to encourage, by bribing with a monopoly of worldly honours and emoluments, those who will externally profess and conform to it…

that to suffer the civil magistrate [judge] to intrude his powers into the field of opinion, and to restrain the profession or propagation of principles on supposition of their ill tendency, is a dangerous fallacy, which at once destroys all religious liberty, because he being of course judge of that tendency will make his opinions the rule of judgment, and approve or condemn the sentiments of others only as they shall square with or differ from his own;

that it is time enough for the rightful purposes of civil government, for its officers to interfere when principles break out into overt acts against peace and good order;

and finally, that truth is great and will prevail if left to herself, that she is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error, and has nothing to fear from the conflict, unless by human interposition disarmed of her natural weapons, free argument and debate, errors ceasing to be dangerous when it is permitted freely to contradict them:

Be it enacted by the General Assembly, That no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief;

but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.

…we are free to declare, and do declare, that the rights hereby asserted are of the natural rights of mankind, and that if any act shall be hereafter passed to repeal the present, or to narrow its operation, such act shall be an infringement of natural right.

The Statute is one of the three achievements Jefferson included in his epitaph:


Being President of the United States was not one of them.

Truthhugger – Religious Freedom Day

Happy Belated Religious Freedom Day

Let Someone Know it’s Religious Freedom Day – Scrooge Report

John Chilembwe Day – Malawi

January 15

For nearly a century historians have puzzled over the actions of John Chilembwe, one of the most controversial figures in Malawian history and Malawi’s national hero. The focus: the last days of his life and the uprising he led in January 1915.

By all accounts, Chilembwe was not the type to start an uprising. He was educated by the Church of Scotland missionary school in what was then Nyassaland (Malawi). He later studied under and worked for Joseph Booth, a baptist from Australia, who was critical of the Presbyterian Church’s role in colonialism and believed in the unpopular idea (among whites) of “Africa for the Africans.” Booth’s daughter Emily wrote that Chilembwe…

…had a greater desire to learn and write, and to gain the Truth of Christianity…He knew his own mind and was not easily to be turned from his purpose. But…he was so kind and true – so thoughtful and unselfish.”

Independent African: John Chilembwe and the Origins, Setting, and Significance of the Nyasaland Native Uprising of 1915, G. Shepperson and Thomas Price (1958 )

Chilembwe accompanied Joseph Booth to the United States in 1897 where he attended the Virginia Theological College in Lynchburg. There Chilembwe explored the works of Booker T. Washington and learned the fatal story of abolitionist John Brown.

When Chilembwe returned to British-controlled Malawi, he developed programs to improve the plight of his people through education, Christianization, and industriousness.

According to historian Landeg White, prior to the rebellion, the most intimidating thing to white settlers was…

…Chilembwe’s habit of dressing himself in three-piece dark suits, complete with bow tie, and his mixed-race wife Ida in silk stockings and high-waisted empire gowns with leg of mutton sleeves.”

— Magomero: Portrait of an African Village (1989)

John Chilembwe & family

However, in the 1910s a famine devastated Malawi and its neighbor Mozambique. Colonial treatment of Malawians under the thangata (labor-rent) system worsened. One American 7th-Day Adventist (Walter Cockerill) wrote:

If the natives cannot pay their two dollars per year, they are taken by the magistrate and compelled to work about six months in irons.

And with the outbreak of World War I, the British conscripted Malawians en masse to fight against Germany.

This was the last straw to Chilembwe.

Let the rich men, bankers, titled men, storekeepers, farmers and landlords go to war and get shot. Instead we, the poor Africans who have nothing to own in this present world, who in death, leave only a long line of widows and orphans in utter want and dire distress are invited to die for a cause which is not theirs.
— John Chilembwe, letter to the Nyasaland Times, November 1914

The unabashedly racist yet prophetic book The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-supremacy (1920) summarized Chilembwe’s uprising as follows:

In 1915 a peculiarly fanatical form of Ethiopism broke out in Nyassaland. Its leader was a certain John Chilembwe, an Ethiopian preacher who had been educated in the United States. His propaganda was bitterly anti-white, asserting that Africa belonged to the black man, that the white man was an intruder, and that he ought to be killed off until he grew discouraged and abandoned the country. Chilembwe plotted a rising all over Nyassaland, the killing of white men, and the carrying off of the white women.

In January 1915, the rising took place. Some plantations were sacked and several whites killed, their heads being carried to Chilembwe’s “church,” where a thanksgiving service for victory was held. The whites, however, acted with great vigor, the poorly armed insurgents were quickly scattered, and John Chilembwe himself was soon hunted down and killed. In itself the incident was of slight importance, but, taken in connection with much else, it does not augur well for the future.

Chilembwe actually ordered his followers not to harm women or children. The attack which killed three white men was targeted against the most brutal plantation in the area, the Bruce Estates, and its manager William Jervis Livingstone. [The display of Livingstone’s head in the church was true.] But the uprising that Chilembwe had hoped would spread through the protectorate never occurred, and Chilembwe was killed a few weeks later, along with members of his flock.

The uprising sent shockwaves throughout the continent. Chilembwe’s actions can be seen as the first revolt in the area in the 20th century struggle for African independence.

Today Malawians celebrate Chilembwe as a martyr who knew he would not survive the revolt, but who led it anyway as the last resort of retaliation against overwhelming oppression. It would be over 50 years before Malawi achieved independence. By that time, the vast majority of African nations had won their independence.

It remains for the Christians of Britain in this day, to consider, whether in the spirit of President Lincoln’s solemn confession during the Nation’s deadly struggle, we also shall be able to say, if the need arises,

“if all the treasure that has been heaped up by the spoliation of the African has to be expended; and if every drop of African blood shed in to the effort to appropriate his country, has to be blotted out by an equal expenditure of European blood just, and righteous, O God, are all thy judgments.”

Africa For the African – Joseph Booth

Happy (Old) New Year!

January 14

Happy New Year!

It’s January 1 in the Orthodox Calendar, observed by Orthodox Churches in Russia, Macedonia, Serbia, and many of the former Soviet Republics, including Ukraine, Armenia, Belarus, and the one that’s all consonants. (Kryrrrgyztyrgystan)

So is Russia two weeks behind the times? Do they feel the need to have the last word on New Year’s Eve parties? Or does being torn between two New Year’s dates simply give them the chance to party for two full weeks?…(which the Russian winter could definitely use.)

Russian New Year

The story goes that up until the late tenth century, much of Russia and Byzantium celebrated the New Year during the spring equinox. That changed in 988 AD when Basil the “Bulgar-slayer” Porphyrogenitus* introduced the Byzantine Calendar to the Eastern Roman Empire.

Basil II
Basil II

The Byzantine Calendar was like the Julian Calendar except it began on September 1, and its “Year One” was 5509 BC—the year historians calculated as the creation of the world (Anno Mundi) according to genealogies of the Bible, from Adam to Jesus.

It took roughly four centuries for the “September 1st” New Year to make its way into the heart of Russia. And just when the Russians were getting used to that, Peter the Great switched to the Julian Calendar, moving New Year’s to January 1 in 1700 AD.

It was only a matter of 50 years until all of Protestant Europe stopped using the Julian Calendar altogether, in favor of the Catholic Europe’s Gregorian Calendar, leaving Russia and the Orthodox Church out in the cold.

So for the next two-hundred years, even though Russia celebrated New Year’s on January 1st according to their calendar, their entire calendar was about 11-13 days behind the rest of the West. (Which is why the Russian October Revolution took place in November.)

It wasn’t until 1918 that Lenin finally moved Russia to the Gregorian calendar.

But the Soviet Union couldn’t let sleeping dogs lie. During the 1930s they declared war on the number 7, dividing months into five six-day weeks. Fortunately, this decade-long practical joke on the Russian people ended in June 1940.

Soviet Calendar of 1933
Soviet Calendar of 1933

These days, when it comes to the Old Calendar vs. the New Calendar, the Russians have tossed aside their austere ways and say, “Why choose? Have both!”

Most New Year celebrations happen on December 31st, but the holiday season continues until January 14. It’s a day of nostalgia, called Old New Year, a more sedate version of New New Year, often spent with family and watching the 1975 classic “Irony of Fate”, the Russian “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

"Irony of Fate" poster
"Irony of Fate" poster

Julian Day

Today we also celebrate day 2,454,846 in the Julian Day system—the number of days that have passed since noon, Greenwich Mean Time, January 1, 4713 BC. The Julian Day system was developed by Joseph Scalizer in 1582, and is used mainly by astronomers and people with way too much time on their hands.

*Basil’s title Porphyrogenitus means “born in the purple”. The title was bestowed at birth upon children who were (1) born to a reigning Emperor and Empress of the Byzantine Empire, and (2) born in the free-standing Porphyry (purple) Chamber in the Great Palace of Constantinople. (That’s why there’s less Porphygenituses than Smiths.)

Russian New Year

Happy Old New Year

Russian Orthodox Calendar


January 14

Today is the first day of Uttarayan, the 6-month season which lasts from January 14 to July 14 in India.

The festivals that celebrate the changing of the season go by many names in India. Makar Sankranti, Pongal, Lohri, and so on. They coincide with January 13th/14th in the Gregorian calendar.

The reason why Makar Sankranti is celebrated more than any other is that it marks the day the Sun starts moving north and the auspicious half of the year is characterized by increasing daylight. Of all the heavenly bodies, the Sun is the most glorious and the most important to life – and the Festival Marak Sankranti is one of the most important and happy feasts in its honor. It is the time when winter begins to loosen its grip and the days begin to grow warmer and warmer. — from Indian Festivals and Events

© Achim Pohl

Sankranti means, literally, to change direction, or to go from one place to another, and Makara (a crocodile/snail/elephant hybrid) refers to the Indian predecessor of the Greek constellation Capricorn. Thus, January 14th in India marks the day the sun begins to move from Sagittarius to Capricorn in the north.

The winter harvest festivals are celebrated in different ways among the one-billion plus people who make up the cultures of India. In the south January 14th is only the first day of a four-day holiday known as Pongal, named for the special rice dish associated with the harvest festival.

Indians in Gujarat celebrate with feasts and kite festivals in which the colorful skies help waken the gods who hibernated through winter. The largest of these is the International Kite Festival in Ahmedabad.

Photos of Ahmedabad Kite Festival

High Flyers of Gujurat


January 14

Pongal – Day 1

Day One of Pongal is called Bhogi or Bogi, and is dedicated to the storm god Indra. Indra is the leader of the Devas–the gods and celestial beings that watch over the heavens and control the elements–such as wind, fire, rain, and air. Indra’s weapon is the thunderbolt. In that way he is similar to the Norse Thor, though his status is higher. Indeed, Indra is the subject of roughly 250 hymns and stories in the Rigveda, more than any other deity. He is incredibly handsome, but he has more vices than any other god. (Maybe that’s why he makes for such good stories!) And he never turns down a good cup of soma (the “Red Bull and vodka” of the gods.) Which would explain why the weather is the way it is.

Indra idol

He is known for his strength and smarts in slaying the dragon Vritra, which represents chaos and non-existence. It is one of the most famous battles in Hindu mythology. In defeating Vritra, Indra separates and supports the heavens and earth.

He is not as revered in modern Hinduism as he once was. This is partly attributed to his character flaws–his mistakes catch up to him and his power reduced–and partly due to the rising influence of gods such as Shiva, Vishnu and Devi. (And maybe we just aren’t as at the whim of the weather as we were in Indra’s prime.)

Bhogi is a day for family. Houses are cleaned and scrubbed top to bottom and all extra clutter is set aside, (the original Spring cleaning) and surfaces are prepared for decoration with a specially-prepared rice and paste concoction, Kolam, adorned with red mud.

In the fields freshly-harvested rice is cut with sickles anointed with sandalwood and paste. A bonfire is lit and all aforementioned “clutter” from the house is burned, along with agricultural waste. The fire symbolizes staying warm during the “last lap of winter.”

Maghi – Festival of the 40 Immortals – Sikhism

January 13


Over three hundred years ago the tenth and last (human) Guru of the Sikhs led his army in an historic battle against the Mughal Emperor.

But today’s holiday, Maghi Mela, actually honors the 40 followers who deserted the Guru before the fight.

At the Battle of Anandpur, Guru Gobind Singh’s men were besieged by the Mughal army. The Mughal Empire covered over 3 million square kilometers and had a population of over 120 million people.

Forty of the Guru’s men deserted him at Anandpur. Guru Gobind Singh had to retreat from Anandpur and most of his army was destroyed in the attack that followed.

When the 40 deserters returned home, their wives and families shunned them for desertion. Ashamed, the men–led by warrior woman Mai Bhago–decided to set back out to join their badly-outnumbered Guru, now in Khidrana Ki Dhab.

As the Mughal army approached Gobind Singh’s camp, they encountered the 40 former deserters. In the Battle of Muktsar all 40 warriors were killed, but the Mughal army met such heavy casualties they were forced to retreat.

Guru Gobind Singh

Guru Gobind Singh post-humously forgave the former deserters and granted them eternal Chali Mukte–liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth and all human suffering. The site became known as Muktsar, the “tank of salvation.”

The Guru died less than three years later, but outlived his nemesis, the Sultan Aurangzeb. Aurangzeb had beheaded Gobind Singh’s father, the previous Guru, 30 years earlier for refusing to convert to Islam.

Both Gobind Singh and Aurangzeb were the last of their kinds.

The Mughal Empire declined after Aurangzeb’s death. He had ruled for half a century and was considered the last great Mughal ruler. He was succeeded by Bahadur Shah I, who reached a brief alliance with the Gobind Singh before the Guru’s death.

Guru Gobind Singh meanwhile declared that he would be succeeded not by a person, but by the Sikh holy book, Guru Granth Sahib, the writings of the ten Gurus of Sikhism. By taking the revolutionary step, Gobind Singh made the Guru immortal. Henceforth Sikhism could be guided by eternal principles instead of dependent on a mortal leader.

The site of the famous battle at Muktsar is now the centerpoint of Maghi Mela, the January 13 remembrance of the 40 Immortals.

Muktsar, site of the famous battle

In the 20th century the Sikh people have faced new, yet similar challenges. According to a 1994 study the Sikh people only make up less than 2% of the Indian population but account for 20% of the Indian Army’s officers, and 10-15% of all ranks.

Yet in 1984 a controversial Indian military operation, code-named Bluestar, killed the Sikh extremist leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and hundreds of his followers, who had declared an independent Sikh state. In retaliation two of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s Sikh bodyguards assassinated her. This in turn led to the Anti-Sikh Riots which killed 3,000 Sikhs in New Delhi alone.

In North America Sikhs have been mistaken for Muslims because of their tradition dress, turban, and beards, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Four days after 9/11 a Sikh gas station owner in Mesa, Arizona (Balbir Singh Sodhi) was gunned down as he helped a landscaper plant flowers around his Chevron station. The racist murderer claimed to have killed Sodhi because of his turban “in retaliation” for the attacks.