Of Holidays and Riddles

Rummaging through the boxes of books still stored out in the garage, I came across my tattered copy of Walt Kelly’s 1952 I Go Pogo, the second of the books that assembled his daily strips, and I recovered some faded memories. One, at age 13, in the mansion that was our family quarters in Lauingen, Bavaria, was of the strange symbols decorating the borders of stories in a library book; curious about what they were, I began what became a long line of research (they were astrological, alchemical, etc.). The other was of how I became fascinated with holidays.

The opening sequence in I Go Pogo, which I read and reread, often just before going to sleep, during the late 1950s and early 1960s, concerns the Bun Rabbit, who plays a drum and who has decided to celebrate all the holidays at once and clear out the rest of the year. He then celebrates an eclectic series of holidays, almost none of which I had heard of at that time. They comprised:

Walpurgis Night

Hodenning

The New Jersey Big Sea Day

Farmer’s Wash Day

Holle Kreish

Laa Boaldyn

Cromm Dub’s Sunday

Tuan Yang

Hogmanay

The Soiree of Gumbo Ya-Ya

St. Elmo’s Fire Drill

Gowk Storm Day

The Midwinter Bear Society Dance

The Down Under Corroborree

The Festa Stultorum

The Day of the Ka

Lammas Eve

The Niman Kachina

Uncle Charlie’s Annual Shivaree

Martinmas

The Feast of the Hungry Ghosts

Knight Rupert’s Visiting Day

The Abbot’s Bromley Antler Dance

The Feast of Goibniu

 

The sequence then climaxed with this riddle: “What’s untied? Whitsuntide! What’s untied on Whitsuntide?”

I began tracking down these strange terms, work that turned into a major research interest—which then merged with my interest in symbols. This work led me further and further into understanding the importance of holidays, and therefore of calendars, as perhaps the most important manifestation of religion in general. One can very often understand much more about a people’s religion from how they celebrate their holidays than from what they say.

I wrote a first draft of a book about calendars in about 1970, while working as a manuscript editor for W. H. Freeman and Company, the book-publishing subsidiary of Scientific American, in San Francisco. Bill Kaufmann, then the President of Freeman, liked it a lot, but assured me it just was not the kind of book Freeman would publish. (Besides, I had only an M.A. at the time.) However, I also had the immense privilege of becoming friends with Sir Fred Hoyle as I edited his books demonstrating that Stonehenge was a neolithic computer used for predicting eclipses.

Twenty years later, while working with Gordon Melton in Santa Barbara, I was able to create a far more complete version of it, incorporating data on most of the major, and many of the minor, religious traditions of the world. By this time, since I had a genuine Ph.D., my opinion was taken more seriously, and I had even done a doctoral comprehensive exam on the Eleusinian Mysteries.

You might ask, What could be complicated about a book on holidays? Don’t you just list the holidays on the correct dates? But there are far more fundamental questions. Why do we have twelve months rather than 13? Why do they differ in lengths? What do the names of the holidays mean? And why isn’t Easter always on the same date in our year?

An adequate answer to such questions required detailed discussions of Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Celtic, and Christian history, as well as astrology, megalithic monuments (especially Stonehenge), solar-system astronomy, the career of Julius Caesar, and the theologies of all the related faith communities—and that’s for only our common Western calendar. For the book, I also had to learn, for example, how the Hindu calendar works—and it is simultaneously astrological and lunisolar.

In the midst of this writing, Gordon, I, and another colleague attended the annual meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, held that year in Salt Lake City. There I had the extraordinary experience of standing on the top floor of the LDS World Headquarters building beside the exuberant James P. Faust, then Second Councilor in the First Presidency (though I did not learn until almost 20 years later who he was), as he cracked jokes and pointed out to me the trail followed by the Pioneers on the day they first descended into the valley.

Having never before heard about the Pioneers, I began reading about them, and reading Joseph Smith’s own writings, when we returned to the university. I can testify to the accuracy of Paul Ricoeur’s observation that you cannot understand the scriptures of a different faith community unless you remain open, while reading them, to the possibility that what you are reading may change you forever. I therefore took care to include all the special Mormon days, as well as those of many other newer communities, in what, to my surprise, became and has remained one of the standard reference books on holidays.

I wrote Religious Holidays and Calendars: An Encyclopedic Handbook as “work for hire,” published by Omnigraphics in Detroit in 1993; that is, I was simply paid for writing it and did not have to wait for royalties. The publisher then added two editors (listed as “co-authors”) to the project and, since he simply owned the manuscript, did not have to ask my opinion about their revisions. The second edition, done about a decade later, put another editor’s name on the title page, but at least the preface admitted that the content was still almost entirely my research and writing. I did find myself at that time in the odd position, while working in the Encarta division of Microsoft, of using that edition, since it was the only one in the company reference library, as evidence in criticizing the inaccuracies of the calendrical data in the almanac I was somewhat editing and mainly indexing. The manager I was discussing this with admitted that they had probably overpaid for the data incorporated into the almanac, but they were stuck with it.

Thus my curiosity as a teenager about strange symbols and names has led through some very interesting and enlightening territory. Oh, Walt Kelly’s riddle. It is a genuine riddle. I’m somewhat tempted to not give you the answer, but that wouldn’t be fair. It took me long enough to figure it out, and even when I tell you, you’ll still have to figure out for yourself why it’s the right answer. So, here (the envelope, please) is the answer:

Lady Godiva’s girdle.

Have fun!

 

 

 


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