Friday, February 27, 2015

Marian Anderson: "A Voice Heard Once In A Hundred Years"

1940 Portrait of Marian Anderson by Carl Van Vechten

When Marian Anderson passed away in 1993 at the age of 96 the world lost one of the finest voices of the 20th century. She swept to international fame in 1939 with a public performance at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. The Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) had denied her the opportunity to perform in their venue, Constitution Hall, because she was black. The decision didn't sit well with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt who sat on the national board of directors of the DAR. Mrs.Roosevelt intervened and helped arrange one of the iconic events of our time.

In commemoration of Anderson's birthday on this day in 1897, here is a documentary, Portrait of Marian Anderson, produced for the Greater Washington Telecommunications Association and first aired on public television on May 8, 1991. I normally don't post lengthy audiovisuals but this one affords viewers a flexible opportunity to learn about her life, listen to her singing, and hear her personal observations on an extraordinary life that included seven decades on the stage. 

Title quote is attributed to the noted conductor, Arturo Toscanini 
Anderson portrait, Carl Van Vechten Collection, Library of Congress

John Steinbeck: "What Good Is The Warmth Of Summer Without The Cold Of Winter To Give It Sweetness."

John Steinbeck, the renowned 20th century American writer, was born on this day in 1902 in the coastal agricultural city of Salinas, California. He had a long, varied, and controversial career as an American writer, but is best known for his Great Depression era novel, The Grapes of Wrath. Most baby boomers know the film and story line very well. As a cultural historian and geographer, it's odd I never managed to read the book from cover to cover. In high school, Of Mice and Men was required reading, and I found great pleasure in reading Travels With Charley: In Search of America on my own shortly after its publication in 1962.

Steinbeck was among the best of participant-observers of 20th century America in general and the California experience in particular. His work earned him a Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962. These days, I don't think students - and teachers - of American history and culture give him the credit and attention he deserves. Perhaps I should be satisfied knowing that history is still taught in the public schools, but that's another essay for another day.

If you don't know Steinbeck or want to know more about him and his world start with an electronic visit to the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas. Better yet, plan a visit next time you find yourself in the San Francisco area. From Salinas it's a short drive to Monterey Bay and the world-class Monterey Bay Aquarium. Located on a site made famous in Steinbeck's novel, Cannery Row, it's a "must see" exposure to the marine biology the author enjoyed and studied. 

Cannery Row, Monterey, California, 1945

Steinbeck portrait, Nobel Foundation

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Forecasting In My CSA Home - And It's Not The Confederate States Of America

With a life-long interest in weather, it's no wonder more than a few of my classmates referred to me as "WiHi's weatherman." when I attended my 50th high school reunion last year. It all began six decades ago in the western Maryland mountains in a population measured in the tens of thousands. In the same manner that weather and climate change, my location over those decades has changed. The huge difference today is both the size and geography of "home." To call Atlanta "home" means looking at what the Bureau of the Census calls a Combined Statistical Area (CSA) of almost 7 million people living in more than forty counties covering almost 11,000 square miles. Add to that a physical geography ranging from the coastal plain at an elevation of 300 feet to the Appalachian Mountains approaching 4000 feet.

I can only imagine the difficulty of forecasting a winter weather event for this area sixty years ago. There's no question weather forecasting improved significantly over those decades, but the CSA's size and variation still makes forecasting for Atlanta a serious challenge. Our National Weather Service (NWS) does well in what I would call a macro-forecast two to three days out. By the sixth day accuracy begins to drop at an accelerating rate. That's why you see seven day forecasts these days, something the NWS has done since 2000. Looking in the other direction we can see some remarkably accurate spot forecasts measured in hours. It gets complicated when you have a lot of spots.

That brings me to the big snow non-event here at "home" over the last two days. Readers may recall that Atlanta was pilloried in the national media last year over "Snowmageddon," an ice and snow event in late January that paralyzed north Georgia. Those who were not here to experience it should be aware that the media chose to ignore reporting that snow concealed a nice blanket of freezing rain on virtually every paved surface. In addition, limited storm preparation at all levels worsened the situation.

This time, they took every precaution from multiple coats of brine sprayed on major roads a day in advance to distributing the usual tons of road salt to preparing scores of emergency shelters. They said "Snowmageddon" wouldn't happen again. And this time for the most part they were correct. The freezing line snaked across the middle of the CSA rather as expected. Yes, there was snow and ice yesterday followed by "black ice" on the roads this morning around "home," but for millions it was a best case scenario. As for our spot on the Atlanta matrix it was a rainy non-event. I'd like to think these non-events will continue for many weeks in this aging winter.  In the spirit of the transition there is much to enjoy wherever we live. If you don't believe me look out the nearest window and listen to this:

Saturday, February 21, 2015

The Peace Symbol Meets Mercedes Benz

Readers usually find lots of birthdays in my posts. Today is no exception; however, the center of our attention is a thing rather than a person. Yes, today is the birthday of the "Peace Sign". It was introduced on this day in 1958 by Gerald Holtom a British artist who developed it as a logo for the British Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. The anti-war movements of the 1960's readily adopted it as an international peace symbol.

The design was quite simple. The vertical line was derived from the British semaphore code symbol for "N" - standing for "Nuclear." The arms came from the symbol for "D." - standing for "Disarmament." Both were set in a circle symbolizing the world.

We've come fifty years and two generations from those early demonstrations and its new symbol. That's plenty of time for symbology to change but in this case most contemporary demonstrators still get it right. Most demonstrators but not all.

Perhaps this phenomenon is little more than a common oversight. On the other hand I suspect that the huge growth in American prosperity and marketing over those decades may be a greater influence. It is a comfortable journey from the houses most boomers experienced as children to the bourgeoisie dwellings we own - perhaps "finance" is a better term - in today's world. Add trust fund babes to the mix and one can see where there may be some confusion with historic symbols and the branding going on in Mom and Dad's three- bay detached garage. If they only knew.


Gerald Holtom earned nothing directly from designing the peace symbol, an image that cannot be copyrighted or trademarked. Commercial users have made billions off the symbol now ubiquitous in our culture 57 years following its introduction.

Wikipedia, Gerald Holton
Center for Nuclear Disarmament
The Peace Symbol Celebrates Its 57th Birthday, But Still No Peace,

Friday, February 20, 2015

Legislation To Restore The Pour

It wasn't until my early thirties and the help of friends and colleagues at Tybee Island that I learned to enjoy a glass of beer. The journey has its beginning a decade earlier at the University of Maryland in College Park. In those ancient days of the 1960's one could not buy a beer legally in Maryland until the age of 21. Fortunately for Maryland students, the campus was little more than two miles from the District of Columbia where beer could be had at the tender age of eighteen. The situation was absurd on several levels least of which was the blurring of jurisdiction and enforcement. It brings us to this February 20, 1933 and legislation introduced in the House of Representatives on Capitol Hill, a mere eight miles from the Maryland campus. 

In 1933, Prohibition - with mixed results - had been in effect across most of the nation since 1920. The halls of Congress were no exception and "the man in the green hat" served his constituency well. His name was George Cassiday and his business was supplying Congress with booze during Prohibition. From 1920 to 1925, he worked for members of Congress out of his office in the Cannon House Office Building until he was arrested for bootlegging. After a brief hiatus, he returned to serving his loyal customers from 1925 to 1930 out of an office in the Russell Senate Office Building. In a confession in a series of articles in The Washington Post prior to the midterm elections he wrote that at least 80% of congressmen and senators had enjoyed his services over the thirteen year period. The series and a sympathetic electorate soon change the political landscape. Voters took revenge on the Republican majority and replaced it with an anti-Prohibition Democrat majority who wasted no time introducing legislation for repeal.  

With the February 20, 1933 introduction of legislation proposing the Twenty-first Amendment to the Constitution the process of repealing the Eighteenth Amendment began. Within ten months Prohibition came to a happy end. If you enjoy a beer or something a tad stronger take a moment to remember this day and the good times it has afforded you and your friends over the decades. You may want to toast the man in the green hat as well. Regardless, I think it makes good sense to remember what cultural research tells us about the subject: we have enjoyed a brew for many thousands of years.  In fact, fermented drink is perhaps the earliest foodway tradition in virtually all cultures.  May the tradition continue verumtamen in iudicio: ut dux vester.

See information section of the video for a translation.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Ash Wednesday 2015: The Beginning Of The Journey To The Cross

This is one of the most solemn and discomforting days in the Christian world for we are marked with ashes and made so very much aware of our sin. This day also marks the beginning of forty days of prayer and abstinence leading us to Christ's death and resurrection. 

Although the ashen cross we bear today will fade over the hours we can take hope knowing that God's love for us will never fade. 

Psalm 51

Have mercy upon me, O God, after Thy great goodness; According to the multitude of Thy mercies do away mine offences.Wash me throughly from my wickedness: and cleanse me from my sin.
For I acknowledge my faults: and my sin is ever before me. Against Thee only have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight: that Thou mightest be justified in Thy saying, and clear when Thou art judged. Behold, I was shapen in wickedness: and in sin hath my mother conceived me. But lo, Thou requirest truth in the inward parts: and shalt make me to understand wisdom secretly.
Thou shalt purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: Thou shalt wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Thou shalt make me hear of joy and gladness: that the bones which Thou hast broken may rejoice. Turn Thy face from my sins: and put out all my misdeeds.
Make me a clean heart, O God: and renew a right spirit within me.Cast me not away from Thy presence: and take not Thy Holy Spirit from me.O give me the comfort of Thy help again: and stablish me with Thy free Spirit.
Then shall I teach Thy ways unto the wicked: and sinners shall be converted unto Thee. Deliver me from blood-guiltiness, O God, Thou that art the God of my health: and my tongue shall sing of Thy righteousness. Thou shalt open my lips, O Lord: and my mouth shall shew Thy praise. For Thou desirest no sacrifice, else would I give it Thee: but Thou delightest not in burnt-offerings. The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit: a broken and contrite heart, O God, shalt Thou not despise.
O be favourable and gracious unto Sion: build Thou the walls of Jerusalem.Then shalt Thou be pleased with the sacrifice of righteousness, with the burnt-offerings and oblations: then shall they offer young bullocks upon Thine altar. 

                                                                                   English Book of Common Prayer, 1662

Here is Gregorio Allegri's (c.1582 - 1652) Miserere , the famous Latin setting of  Psalm 51:

Monday, February 16, 2015

Washington's Birthday: An Official And Very Flexible Holiday

At one time the nation had a Washington's Birthday holiday on February 22, the actual day of the man's birth, but that changed in 1971 when the "Monday holiday rule" took effect. The rule was a postlude to a torturous twenty year saga of federal bickering, ineptitude, and state's rights issues over the national failure to honor our presidents, especially Abraham Lincoln, with their very own holiday. The fallout left us with what is in reality a Washington's Unbirthday holiday and a three-day weekend. Honest Abe didn't make the official cut.

Never keen to let a good shopping opportunity pass, American capitalists liked the idea of a President's Day, especially one that could be stretched over a full week . And Lincoln and Washington were a perfect match.  Merchants saw the advantage of the patriotic fervor generated by matching silhouettes of Lincoln - log cabins - and Washington - axes and cherries - positioned over merchandise and big red signs reading "SALE." The concept caught on. Today, about all Americans have left with the third Monday in February is the opportunity to buy stuff, mostly stuff they don't need. On the federal level, this not only leaves us with nothing for Old Abe but also nothing for the other presidents save George.

I figure one could sooth this insult by ignoring the mess and shopping the day away. Even that strategy may not work. I seriously doubt shoppers can beat the price and associated costs that one can enjoy from on a 24/7 basis. A bit of research and we can find similar sites for those big, big ticket items like cars.

So what is one to do? Perhaps it's best to forget the issues of a misnomer and the neglected presidents and return to Lincoln and Washington as our February presidents. And they have more in common as presidents who share the quality of American exceptionalism, a term we've been hearing more often these days as the republic drifts ever deeper into its golden years. With that in mind, I suggest readers find a comfortable setting and reflect on these men and their place in the American experience. If readers need a bit of encouragement here are two statements, one so very brief, the other a bit longer, both reflecting the greatness of their authors and the hope they shared for our unique national experience:

Washington's Farewell Address, written in 1796 on his coming departure from the presidency;

Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, delivered on November 19, 1863.

The postcards date from the first decade of the 20th century and are from the family archives.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Valentine's Day 2015

Happy Valentine's Day 2015

These 1910 Valentine's Day postcards come from the family archives 

Thursday, February 12, 2015

The Birth Of Rhapsody In Blue

"The King of Jazz," Paul Whiteman,  a strong-willed innovator and perfectionist  became the most popular band leader in the U.S. during the Roaring Twenties.  He encouraged many talented artists and composers through his interest in fusing jazz with other musical styles. Furthermore, he appreciated experimental music and sponsored several concerts featuring new compositions and artists. For one of these concerts he asked his friend and collaborator, George Gershwin, to compose a "jazz concerto." Although faced with a short performance deadline, Gershwin reluctantly agreed. In two weeks, he completed the new piece and entitled it Rhapsody in Blue. After two weeks of orchestration and eight days of rehearsal, Whiteman premiered the piece at the Aeolian Hall in New York in February 12, 1924 with Gershwin at the piano. The performance certainly enhanced Whiteman's reputation but more importantly it affirmed Gershwin place as a leading American composer. 

There is no recording of the premiere but the bandleader and composer did appear in a memorable performance of Rhapsody in Blue in the 1930 film, King of Jazz. The film itself is an important piece of cinema history.

Gershwin was born in New York in 1898. He went on to become perhaps the most beloved American composer of the last century through his many compositions for the musical stage, the concert hall, and what has become known as the Great American Songbook.  Gershwin's appeal comes in part from his colorful and lively incorporation of jazz motifs in all his music. He died in 1937 with what could only be called a wonderful career ahead of him. I often imagine what he could have brought to us had he lived.
As for Rhapsody in Blue it seems as fresh today as it did in 1924 ranking among the most popular of concert titles in orchestra repertoires around the world. 


"Rhapsody in Blue cover" by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia -

Abraham Lincoln's Birthday

Beyond the photographs worth a thousand words we sometimes find a thousand words worth far more than the images and snippets we'll see and hear today about Abraham Lincoln.  Carl Sandburg won a Pulitzer prize for his biography of Lincoln and in all likelihood there will never be more  enjoyable writing on the subject. In 1959, the 150th anniversary of Lincoln's birth, Sandburg was asked to address a joint session of Congress on Old Abe's legacy. This is what he said:

Not often in the story of mankind does a man arrive on earth who is both steel and velvet, who is as hard as rock and soft as drifting fog, who holds in his heart and mind the paradox of terrible storm and peace unspeakable and perfect. Here and there across centuries come reports of men alleged to have these contrasts. And the incomparable Abraham Lincoln born 150 years ago this day, is an approach if not a perfect realization of this character. In the time of the April lilacs in the year 1865, on his death, on the casket with his body was carried north and west a thousand miles; and the American people wept as never before; bells sobbed, cities wore crepe; people stood in tears and with hats off as the railroad burial car paused in the leading cities of seven states ending its journey at Springfield, Illinois, the hometown. During the four years he was President he at times, especially in the first three months, took to himself the powers of a dictator; he commanded the most powerful army still then assembled in modern warfare; he enforced conscription of soldiers for the first time in American History; under imperative necessity he abolished the right of habeus corpus; he directed politically and spiritually the wild, massive, turbulent forces let loose in Civil War. He argued and pleaded for compensated emancipation of the slaves. The slaves were property, they were on the tax books along with horses and cattle, the valuation of each slave next to his name on the tax assessor‘s books. Failing to get action on compensated emancipation, as a Chief Executive having war powers he issued the paper by which he declared the slaves to be free under "military necessity." In the end, nearly $4,000,000,000 worth of property was taken away from those who were legal owners of it, property confiscated, wiped out as by fire and turned to ashes, at his instigation and executive direction. Chattel property recognized and lawful for 300 years was expropriated, seized without payment.
In the month the war began, he told his secretary, John Hay, "My policy is to have no policy." Three years later in a letter to a Kentucky friend made public, he confessed plainly, "I have been controlled by events." His words at Gettysburg were sacred, yet strange with a color of the familiar: "We cannot consecrate – we cannot hallow – this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far beyond our poor power to add or detract." He could have said "The brave union men." Did he have a purpose in omitting the word "union?"  Was he keeping himself and his utterance clear of the passion that would not be good to look back on when the time came for peace and reconciliation? Did he mean to leave an implication that there were brave Union men and brave Confederate men, living and dead, who had struggled there? We do not know, of a certainty. Was he thinking of the Kentucky father whose two sons died in battle, one in Union blue, the other in Confederate gray, the father inscribing on the stone over their double grave, "God knows which was right?" We do not know. His changing policies from time to time aimed at saving the Union. In the end his armies won and his nation became a world power. In August of 1864, he wrote a memorandum that he expected to lose the next November election; sudden military victory brought the tide his way; the vote was 2,200,000 for him and 1,800,000 against him. Among his bitter opponents were such figures as Samuel F. B. Morse, inventor of the telegraph, and Cyrus H. McCormick, inventor of the farm reaper. In all its essential propositions the Southern Confederacy had the moral support of powerful, respectable elements throughout the north, probably more than a million voters believing in the justice of the Southern cause. While the war winds howled he insisted that the Mississippi was one river meant to belong to one country, that railroad connection from coast to coast must be pushed through and the Union Pacific Railroad a reality. While the luck of war wavered and broke and came again, as generals failed and campaigns were lost, he held enough forces of the Union together to raise new armies and supply them, until generals were found who made war as victorious war has always been made, with terror, frightfulness, destruction, and on both sides, north and south, valor and sacrifice past words of man to tell. In the mixed shame and blame of the immense wrongs of two crashing civilizations, often with nothing to say, he said nothing, slept not at all, and on occasions he was seen to weep in a way that made weeping appropriate, decent, majestic. As he rode alone on horseback near soldiers home on the edge of Washington one night his hat was shot off; a son he loved died as he watched at the bed; his wife was accused of betraying information to the enemy, until denials from him were necessary. An Indiana man at the White House heard him say, "Voorhees, don‘t it seem strange to you that I, who could never so much as cut off the head of a chicken, should be elected, or selected, into the midst of all this blood?" He tried to guide general Nathaniel Prentiss Banks, a Democrat, three times Governor of Massachusetts, in the governing of some 17 of the 48 parishes of Louisiana controlled by the Union armies, an area holding a fourth of the slaves of Louisiana. He would like to see the state recognize the Emancipation Proclamation, "And while she is at it, I think it would not be objectionable for her to adopt some practical system by which the two races could gradually live themselves out of their old relation to each other, and both come out better prepared for the new. Education for the young blacks should be included in the plan." To Governor Michel Hahn elected in 1864 by a majority of the 11,000 white male voters who had taken the oath of allegiance to the Union, Lincoln wrote, "Now that you are about to have a convention which, among other things, will probably define the elective franchise, I barely suggest for your private consideration, whether some of the colored people may not be let in – as for instance, the very intelligent and especially those who have fought gallantly in our ranks."
Among the million words in the Lincoln utterance record, he interprets himself with a more keen precision than someone else offering to explain him. His simple opening of the house divided speech in 1858 serves for today: "If we could first know where we are, and whither we are tending we could better judge what to do, and how to do it."  To his Kentucky friend, Joshua F. Speed, he wrote in 1855, "Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation we began by declaring that  All men are created equal, except Negroes.' When the know-nothings get control, it will read "All men are created equal except Negroes and foreigners and Catholics.‘ When it comes to this, I shall prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty." Infinitely tender was his word from a White House balcony to a crowd on the White House lawn, "I have not willingly planted a thorn in any man‘s bosom," or a military governor, "I shall do nothing through malice; what I deal with is too vast for malice." He wrote for Congress to read on December 1, 1863, "In times like the present men should utter nothing for which they would not willingly be responsible through time and eternity." Like an ancient psalmist he warned Congress, "Fellow citizens, we cannot escape history. We will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance or insignificance can spare one or another of us.

The fiery trial through which we pass will light us down in honor or dishonor to the latest generation." Wanting Congress to break and forget past traditions his words came keen and flashing.  "The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate for the stormy present. We must think anew, we must act anew, we must disenthrall ourselves." They are the sort of words that actuated the mind and will of the men who created and navigated that marvel of the sea, the nautilus, and her voyage from Pearl Harbor and under the North Pole Icecap.

The people of many other countries take Lincoln now for their own. He belongs to them. He stands for decency, honest dealing, plain talk, and funny stories. "Look where he came from—don‘t he know all us strugglers and wasn‘t he a kind of tough struggler all his life right up to the finish?"  Something like that you can hear in any nearby neighborhood and across the seas. Millions there are who take him as a personal treasure. He had something they would like to see spread everywhere over the world. Democracy? We can‘t say exactly what it is, but he had it. In his blood and bones he carried it. In the breath of his speeches and writings it is there. Popular government? Republican institutions? Government where the people have the say-so, one way or another telling their elected rulers what they want? He had the idea. It‘s there in the lights and shadows of his personality, a mystery that can be lived but never fully spoken in words. 
Our good friend the poet and playwright Mark Van Doren, tells us, ―To me, Lincoln seems, in some ways, the most interesting man who ever lived . . . He was gentle but this gentleness was combined with a terrific toughness, an iron strength.‖ How did he say he would like to be remembered? His beloved friend, Representative Owen Lovejoy of Illinois, had died in May of 1864, and friends wrote to Lincoln and he replied that the pressure of duties kept him from joining them in efforts for a marble monument to Lovejoy. The last sentence of his letter saying, ―Let him have the marble monument along with the well assured and more enduring one in the hearts of those who love liberty, unselfishly, for all men.‖ So perhaps we may say that the well assured and most enduring memorial to Lincoln is invisibly there, today, tomorrow and for a long time yet to come in the hearts of lovers of liberty, men and women who understand that wherever there is freedom there have been those who fought and sacrificed for it.

Indeed, Sandburg has left us quite a picture of the great man.    

An audio recording of Sandburg delivering his address is available here. If you have never heard him speak, at least take a few minutes to experience the compelling voice and style of one of our most beloved poets and participant-observers of the American experience.

National Park Service, Carl Sandburg National Historic Site webpage

Friday, February 6, 2015

George Herman Ruth: A Babe With Potential

George Ruth wasn't much of a scholar at Baltimore's St. Mary's Industrial School for Boys but he excelled at baseball, the primary sport used by the Xavarian Brothers to bring structure and discipline to their 800 boys.  He was born in Pigtown, one of Baltimore's many rough and tough neighborhoods near it's famous harbor. After seven years struggling to maintain their working-class family his parents assigned custody of their son to St. Mary's. He entered when he was seven years old and stayed there for twelve years. A few months after his nineteenth birthday in 1914 he signed a professional baseball contract to play with the Baltimore Orioles. He was the newest "babe" to join the team and would go on to become a legend during his major league career (1914-1935) with the Boston Red Sox, the New York Yankees, and the Boston Braves.

Babe Ruth (top row, center) at St. Mary's School in 1913

Today marks the 120th birthday of Babe Ruth, the "Bambino," the "Sultan of Swat," arguably the greatest baseball player ever.

Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum

See Ruth's Wikipedia and National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum pages for more information, including videos, photos, and a wealth of amazing statistics.

Babe Ruth , New York Yankees, 1920

Some 20 years ago, I stopped talking about the Babe for the simple reason that I realized that those who had never seen him didn't believe me.
                                                                                     Tommy Holmes (sportswriter)


Babe Ruth, Wikipedia entry
Babe Ruth biography, Baseball Hall of Fame,
Babe Ruth Museum,

Monday, February 2, 2015

Candlemas: Where Light Enters The World

Down with the rosemary, and so
Down with the bays and mistletoe;
Down with the holly, ivy, all,
Wherewith ye dressed the Christmas Hall.

Around our house on February 2 the words of Robert Herrick's (1591-1674)  poem, Ceremony upon Candlemas Eve, have special meaning.  They remind that we have stretched this joyous Christmas holiday to its limit.  As much as we love the season it does come to an end in the church calendar. And so today the last of the Christmas decorations have come down from the walls, doorways and mantel to be stored for next season. We'll build a fire in the den fireplace tonight but it will seem naked without its trimmings of red, green, gold and glass. But there will be light and warmth, both spiritual and physical, as this joyous Christmastide - the liturgical seasons of Christmas and Epiphany - ends.

Readers undoubtedly will hear something about groundhogs today. They are less likely to learn that February 2 marks a Christian festival day. It is known in the western Catholic tradition as the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin or Candlemas, and more often in the Protestant world simply as The Presentation of Our Lord.

Presentation of Jesus at the Temple             Han Holbein, German, 1500

The festival marks the fortieth day following the birth of Jesus. Under Mosaic law, it was a day for temple rites completing the purification of a woman following childbirth. It was also the day to present the firstborn son for redemption in the rite of pidyon haben.

The Candlemas tradition emerges from Luke 2:22-39 where Simeon prays over Jesus with words that would become known as the Song of Simeon or Nunc Dimittis:

In peace, Lord, you let your servant now depart 
according to your word. 
For my eyes have seen your salvation, 
which you have prepared for every people,
a light to lighten the Gentiles 
and the glory of your people Israel.

Here is Gustav Holst's 1915 setting of the song in Latin for eight voices:

Nunc dimittis servum tuum, Domine, 
secundum verbum tuum in pace:
Quia viderunt oculi mei salutare tuum
Quod parasti ante faciem omnium populorum:
Lumen ad revelationem gentium,
et gloriam plebis tuae Israel. 

Beginning around the third century following the birth of Jesus, the blessing of candles and their procession about the church on this feast day became a symbol of Jesus as the light of the world. The practice did not emerge in the western church for at least another seven hundred years.

This day has other interesting attributes in addition to the end of Christmastide. It is also the mid-point of Winter, a cross-quarter day filled with pagan traditions symbolizing fire and the "return of the light"

I should note that earlier today on a nearby farm in metro Atlanta, General Beauregard Lee came out of his groundhog house and did not leave a shadow. We look forward to the embrace of the warmth of an early spring.