Purim performance at the Jewish Theatre in Warszawa, Poland. March 2009

Purim performance at the Jewish Theatre in Warszawa, Poland. March 2009

Jews celebrate the rowdy full moon festival of Purim with bawdy jokes, indulgence, gambling and dressing up in costume, all customs that link it with other springtime festivals of excess like Mardi Gras. Although Purim ostensibly celebrates the overthrow of the wicked tyrant Haman who was murdering the Jews, scholars believe the festival actually has roots in an ancient Persian spring holiday which featured a mock battle (like those often linked with Carnival and Easter).

People bring noise-makers to the evening service, to drown out the name of the tyrant Haman during the re-telling of the story of Esther. Some write his name on bits of paper which they tear up and toss into the air; others have his name written on the soles of their shoes which they stamp on the floor. The Talmud recommends drinking until it is impossible to tell the difference between “Cursed be Haman” and “Blessed be Mordecai.”

hamantaschenAfter the service, everyone eats, hamantaschen, three-cornered cookies filled with poppy seeds or jam, which are said to represent Haman’s three-cornered hat. But they also resemble the triangular filled pastries in the shape of a woman’s sex used to celebrate the  Roman birth goddesses and that would certainly go along with the bawdy flavor of the holiday. Not everyone eats hamantaschen at Purim. German Jews eat gingerbread men. Egyptians eat ozne Haman, deep-fried sweets shaped like Haman’s ears. Hungarian and Romanian Jews enjoy arany galuska, (aka monkey balls) which is similar an interesting cross between coffee cake and doughnut holes (reminiscent of the king  cake and doughnuts served at Mardi Gras).

This festival is also called The Festival of Lotteries, because of the lots cast by Haman to choose the day to destroy the Jews. But playing games of chance is a feature of other festivals of reversal like Saturnalia and Twelfth Night and other festivals of reversal. At Purim, sometimes a Purim-rabbi is elected to give a mock sermon.

In some traditional Jewish towns, teams of Purimshpielers tour the streets, juggling and singing, dancing and acting, wearing costumes and presenting plays on Jewish history. In Tel Aviv, there is a parade and carnival including a beauty contest to choose Queen Esther from among the women.

The traditional Purim dinner includes kreplach and peas, particularly chickpeas, a huge challah, and, ever since the turkey was brought to Europe from North America around 1524, turkey. Some say the turkey is served in remembrance of Ahasuerus, who was a foolish king, but it may have more to do with the scope of his kingdom, for he ruled from Ethiopia to India, and the turkey was known in Hebrew as “the Indian cock.”


Nathan, Joan, The Jewish Holiday Kitchen, Schocken Books 1988

Waskow, Arthur, Seasons of Our Joy, Beacon 1982

Photo of Purim play by Henryk Kotowski, found at the Wikipedia article on Purim

Photo of hamantaschen from this website which also offers a recipe.

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A Poem for St David’s Day

FebruarySince March 1st is the feast day of St. David, the patron saint of Wales, I thought I would share a Welsh poem with you. And since March 1 is famously the start of a windy month (March either comes in like a lamb (as it is in Seattle this year) or like a lion, reversing its nature at the end of the month), I wanted to share a poem (see the YouTube video below) about the Wind by Dafydd ap Gwilym (who is named after the saint as Dafydd is the Welsh spelling of David).

Dafydd ap Gwilym is one of my favorites of the Welsh poets. He wrote in the fourteenth century and his poetry is clearly influenced by the troubadour tradition. His favorite topics were nature and romance and he combines them beautifully in poems about trysting with the woman he loves in a grove of birch trees. In this particular poem, the poet addresses the wind and asks him to carry a message to his beloved.

If you would like to hear the Welsh version of this, you can listen to it here.

For a really interesting (but somewhat academic) article on the meter of Welsh poetry and why Wales has produced so many great poets, check out this article on “Extreme Welsh Meter” by Gwyneth Lewis from Poetry magazine: I’ve tried writing poetry using Welsh meters myself while I was in Wales and it is both incredibly difficult and incredibly rewarding. Can still recite whole verses form the poems I wrote because the rhyming and meter schemes made it so memorable.

The photo of the bird flying over the ocean was used to illustrate the month of Windy in my French Republican Calendar in 2013 and was taken by Melissa Gayle West.

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Vasant Panjami

I learned about this holiday, which is new to me,  thanks to my Amber Lotus* calendar and wrote about it for the Amber Lotus holiday blog.

witchhazelThe fifth day after the new moon of January (January 24 in 2015) marks the first day of spring in the Hindu holiday calendar and is celebrated in India and Nepal.   Yellow is the auspicious color to wear: the color of happiness and the color of the mustard that is blooming at this time. (In my neighborhood in Seattle, witch hazel is already unfurling its yellow fragrant petals.) Like the early spring festivals in the Christian calendar (Mardi Gras) and Western European calendar (Candlemas), this holiday falls 40 days (or rather a moon cycle and a half in the Hindu calendar)  before the full explosion of spring celebration at the full moon of Holi (or Easter or Spring Equinox)

In ancient India, the festival honored Kamadeva, the god of desire, whose bow is made of sugarcane and strung with bees, and whose arrows are decorated with fragrant flowers. Dancing girls performed, and songs of love were sung in the royal court. It is still a day associated with love and an auspicious day for a wedding.

saraswatNow it is Saraswati, the goddess of art and learning, who is honored. Her statue is often dressed in yellow clothing. On this day, Kayastha scribes would retire their ink pots and adopt new ones, filling them with new ink for the following day. Children are encouraged to say their first word. Schools take a break. People attend art and painting competitions, music festivals, and poetry readings. Seems like a great day to set aside time for creativity, whether visiting a museum, attending a concert, writing a poem or creating something wonderful to eat.

gulab jamun


Since yellow is the color of the day, people wear yellow garments and eat saffron rice and yellow desserts. You can find recipes for Hindu desserts online (here’s one link but there are many) but if you can’t easily obtain the specialized ingredients, a rice pudding colored with saffron would be appropriate. I am planning to go to my neighborhood Indian restaurant, Kanak, and sample some of their yellow-colored desserts.

The photo of gulab jamun comes from the dessert site above. Gulab jamun is made from khoya (a dairy product) and flour, rolled into balls, deep-fried and finished off with a sugar syrup containing saffron.

*If you use the link above to Amber Lotus, I will get a small commission on any purchases you make.




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Hanukkah: Festival of Lights

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA This blog was originally written for the holiday lore blog at Amber Lotus. The Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, like the stringing of Christmas lights on trees and houses, and the lighting of the Advent candles, celebrates light during the darkest time of the year. The Jewish holiday calendar is still a lunar calendar and that means that the theme of light and dark can play out in the timing of the moon as well as the sun. Hanukkah always begins on the 26th of Kislev, three days before the dark moon closest to the full moon that is closest to the Winter Solstice, so at the darkest time of the moon and at the darkest time of the sun. Most Jewish holidays are linked to a pivotal moment in Jewish history. For Hanukkah, that moment is the victory of the Maccabees against the Hellenistic overseers of the Land of Israel who outlawed Jewish religious practices (and punished them with death) while reinstating pagan rituals. In 166 BCE, when the Maccabees recaptured Jerusalem, they chose the 26th of Kislev as the day to purify and rededicate the temple which had been desecrated three years earlier. But the temple contained only one sealed flask of oil, only enough to light the lamps for one day. Miraculously that oil lasted for the eight days of the ceremonies. But as Arthur Waskow points out in his wonderful book on Jewish holidays, Seasons of Our Joy, the Greeks were probably celebrating a Winter Solstice ritual on that day and by claiming the same day for their festival the Maccabees

were rededicating not only the Temple but the day itself to Jewish holiness; were capturing a pagan solstice festival that had won wide support among partially Hellenized Jews, in order to make it a day of God’s victory over paganism. Even the lighting of candles for Hanukkah fits the context of the surrounding torchlight honors for the sun.

The main ritual for Hanukkah involves lighting candles in the menorah, a candelabra that contains eight candles in a row. The first candle on the right is lit on the first night (December 16 in 2014) and each night an additional candle is lit until all eight are burning. Since the lit candles are not to be used for any practical purpose, many menorahs have a space for a ninth candle, a shammas or shammash, which is set above (or below) the others and used to light them. The candles are lit just s night falls and are left to burn for a half an hour. No work is to be done while the candles are burning (just as the candles are not to be used for practical purposes). Instead this half hour is a time for contemplation, for saying blessings and singing songs, eating special foods and playing games. In some Sephardic communities, women do not work at all on the first and eighth days of Hanukkah, and in some places, they don’t work on any of the eight days. Just as the Sabbath is the day for rest provided during the week, so are the eight days of Hanukkah a time of rest at this pivotal point in the year. hanukkah geltHanukkah foods are cooked in oil: potato latkes and fritters and jam-filled doughnuts, all recall the miracle of the long-lasting oil. Children play with a dreidl and are sometimes given gifts, particularly Hanukkah gelt. I’ve always loved those thin gold-foiled chocolate coins which remind me of the gifts of money so common at New Year festivals (the Romans, for instance, gave coins as New Year Gifts) and certainly,with the return of light in the darkness, the new year is born. Photo of Hanukkah gelt was taken by Liz West and posted at Flickr. Photo of the silver menorah (found at Wikipedia) was taken by Ladislav Flaigl and released into the public domain.

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Thanksgiving as Harvest Feast

PAINTING DETAILMost Americans know the semi-mythological story of the first Thanksgiving, how the Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony after a successful harvest in 1621 shared a meal with members of the Patuxet People of the Wampanoag tribe who had helped them plant their crops. But what we may not realize is that they were both acting out long-standing cultural traditions. The harvest festival, although it is celebrated at different times of the year and with different foodstuffs, is something found in every culture around the world.

The English settlers probably brought with them memories of the Michaelmas feast (September 29), the harvest festival on the English holiday calendar, a time to return home to eat together. The Wampanoag tribe had their own harvest festivals which coincided with the appearance of green corn and the arrival of certain fish species. In many African countries, the harvest festival, Odiwera, occurs at the time of the yam harvest. In Ireland, the first potatoes. In Hungary and Italy and Argentina, the grapes. In Papua, New Guinea, the pigs. In Bali, the rice. Everywhere, the festival usually involves a lavish meal, dancing, drinking, and ceremonies expressing gratitude to those (the gods or the farmers) who provided the food.

I am sometime annoyed by the insistence on recreating the ideal big family experience that accompanies Thanksgiving, an experience that is elusive but even in sitcoms, always triumphs over the forces of dysfunction arrayed against it. But I am ever so grateful that we have one holiday on the American holiday calendar that has not been co-opted by consumerism, that gathers us around a table to celebrate the food we’ve raised and cooked and shared with those we love.

This blog post first appeared at the Amber Lotus website, as part of a commissioned series of weekly posts on holiday lore.

The painting is called “The First Thanksgiving” and it’s by Jennie Brownscombe. I think it nicely illustrates the semi-mythological nature of the first Thanksgiving.


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Floralia Sparks May Day

Floradetail_WaterhouseThe Romans honored the Sabine goddess of blossoms and spring with six days of celebrations including games, pantomimes, plays and stripteases, which went on into the night illuminated by torchlight. Everyone wore their most colorful clothes and decked themselves and their animals in flowers. Goats and hares were let loose–they represented fertility and sexuality and Venus in her role as patroness of cultivated nature. Small vegetables (one imagines cucumbers and zucchinis) were distributed as fertility tokens. Flora represented the sexual aspect of plants, the attractiveness of the flowers, and was the matron of prostitutes.flora maria szobrok pinterest

In this Roman statue from Hadrian’s villa, she looks a little too prim and proper to preside over such frivolity. The painting of Flora and the Zephyr by Waterhouse captures Flora in a more wanton pose.

Floralia sets in motion all the delightful holidays associated with May Day. The English have a saying about children born between May 1 and May 8 (Between the Beltanes): they have “the skill of man and beast” and power over both.

Blackburn, Bonnie and Leofranc Holford-Strevens, Oxford Companion to the Year, Oxford University Press, 1999
Kightly, Charles, The Perpetual Almanack of Folklore, Thames & Hudson 1987
Rufus, Anneli, The World Holiday Book, Harper San Francisco 1994
Wikipedia has a well-documented article on the Floralia here.
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Easter Monday

locks 036Easter Monday

There are many unique celebrations that take place on Easter Monday but most involve playful pranks, splashing with water, whipping with switches and spending the day outdoors.

In England, particularly in the Northwest and along the Welsh border, young men roved around in a group, carrying a stout chair decorated with greens, flowers and ribbons in which they placed each woman of the house and lifted her three times in the air. They then claimed a kiss and a small gift of money. On Tuesday, women went around with the chair and lifted the men. The lifting ended promptly at noon on both days.

In some places the observance was rowdier. Both men and women were hoisted into the air and kissed by roving gangs. Sometimes a rope was stretched across the road and those who were halted by the obstacle were then placed in a chair and lifted. Christina Hole in her book on British folk customs suggests that lifting was the remnant of an older agricultural and magical custom, perhaps a rite of fertility designed to foster the growth of the crops.

In Shropshire and Herefordshire, the feet of the person being lifted were sprinkled with water from a wet bunch of flowers, recalling the watery sprinkling of the Easter Service (the purification and new birth symbolized by baptism) and the New Year festivals of Thailand and Sri Lanka (Apr 13 & 16).

Gertrud Nelson Mueller when writing about how she celebrates Christian rituals always takes the day off to take her kids to water. Usually they go to a nearby marsh for birding, but splashing is a part of their celebration.

pussywillowsDyngus Day/Smigus Day

The Poles celebrate the Monday after Easter under the name of Dyngus Day or Smigus Day. The customs are familiar: boys splash girls with water on Monday; and also strike at them with pussywillow wands (both sound like remnants of fertility rituals).  In earlier times, the girls had to wait for a chance to get revenge until Thursday when they threw crockery at the boys. However, now it is more common for them to fight back with water on Monday. This article discusses both names and traces them to the pagan practices of splashing with water and whipping with pussywillows.willow switches by shaw 0312

In American cities with strong Polish communities, like South Bend, Indiana and Buffalo, New York, Dyngus Day is celebrated with parades, pussy willow whipping and squirt-gun fights and traditional food, like kielbasa and pierogi.

When my daughter and I were in Prague around Easter time 2012, she took a photo of these willow switches that were for sale for use on Easter Monday.

La Pasquetta

In Italy, this day is called La Pasquetta, Little Easter. Everyone goes on a picnic, meant to last all afternoon (like the Persian festival of the Thirteenth Outside). They take along an antipasto of a hard-boiled egg and salt and local bitter herbs like aurugula or radicchio or fennel.

Feast of the Blajini

In Rumania on the Monday following Easter, women throw red Easter eggs into running streams for the benefit of the Blajini, the lost race of spirits which live on the bank of the river fed by all the streams in the world. They live so far away, they don’t know what’s happening in our world, so this is how they know that spring has come.

Hole, Christina, A Dictionary of British Folk Customs, Paladin 1978
Field, Carol, Celebrating Italy, William Morrow 1990
Nelson, Gertrud Mueller, To Dance with God, Paulist Press 
Spicer, Dorothy Gladys, The Book of Festivals, The Woman’s Press 1937
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Flower Carpets for Corpus Christi

Corpus Christi is the name of a Catholic festival, which takes place on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday (which is the Sunday after Pentecost which is the Sunday 50 days after Easter). It was first established by the Council of Vienna in 1311 to promote the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation (the belief that the host consecrated in the Mass actually becomes the Body of Christ). It was really promoted during the Reformation as a demonstration of Catholic solidarity.

I still remember celebrations of Corpus Christi from my Catholic childhood. It was an opportunity for pomp and pageantry. There is usually a procession during which the priest displays the host in a monstrance, a golden vessel which is shaped like a sunburst.  I often consider, since this festival falls so close to summer solstice, that the two holidays share a common underlying symbolism.

In France, this holiday is called Fete Dieu or the Feast of God. The priest wears red and gold lavishly embroidered garments. The monstrance is a golden vessel shaped like the sun. It is usually shielded by a canopy of silk and cloth of gold. Streets are scattered with flower petals and householders decorate their homes, often by pasting flower petals on a sheet and hanging them up.

Small altars are created along the roads. In France, they’re called reposoirs and are built at crossroads. They are decorated with flowers, garlands and greens and covered with canopies of interwoven boughs. The priest goes around and blesses them.

Corpus Christi is also a time for plays and pageants (although these were originally associated with Whitsunday). Fantastically dressed performers accompanied the processions and acted out scenes from the Bible and the lives of the saints at stops along the way. In medieval times, each guild sponsored a scene in a grand play showing the whole scheme of Salvation. Some of the dramas were so long they could not be performed in their entirety: the Coventry cycle took two years.

Carol Field describes the way Corpus Christi is celebrated in Spello, Italy, where people transform the main street into a carpet of color using flower petals (infiorate). Collecting the flowers takes as long as two weeks. The oldest women are given the job of taking the flowers apart, petal by petal, and separating them by the subtle differences of hue. Pine needles, ivy leaves, camomile and fennel are ground up to make green. Poppies are used for red, broom for yellow and white from daisies. The designs are complicated, and often reproduce famous paintings, usually religious ones. The priest when he emerges from the cathedral holding up the Host walks down the length of flower carpet, and the petals scatter to the breezes. It is a display of beauty and richness that is as ephemeral as it is extravagant.

Julie Ardery of Human Flower Project wrote a column about the flower carpets of another Italian town, Genzano.

In keeping with the theme, my friend, Joanna Powell Colbert, recommended the spiritual and creative practice of making a flower mandala in her recent newsletter and illustrated it with this lovely example.





Field, Carol, Celebrating Italy, Morrow 1990

Painting of Corpus Christi procession by Carl Emil Doepler (found at Wikipedia’s article on Corpus Christi)

The photo of flowers at Spello comes from the French version of Wikipedia

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Ascension Thursday

Ascension Thursday is one of the oldest festivals in the Catholic Church, having been celebrated since 68 AD. Water is the primary element of this holy day, celebrated on May 29 in 2014.

The Armenians believe that on Ascension Eve, stones, stars and other soulless objects are said to receive the gift of speech and to share each other’s secrets. And in Poland, “the dragon who guards hidden treasures throughout the night, exposes them to view on Ascension, when he sets them out to air.” The sun is said to dance on this day when it rises.

In Armenia, girls tell their fortunes from tokens thrown into a bowl of water drawn from seven springs. All brooks and springs are said to be filled with healing power at midnight. If you don’t want to visit your local body of water at midnight, you might just put out a container and hope it rains since any water that falls from the skies on this day can also heal. In a somewhat related vein, in Sweden, a person who fishes from dawn until night on the Ascension will learn the hour when the fish bite best and be lucky in her angling all year.

In Greece, Ascension Day is considered the start of the swimming season. In Venice, the Doge used to wed the sea on this day by throwing in a wedding ring and some holy water. In Tissington, Derbyshire, wells are decorated on this day. In Nantwich, they bless the Brine, a very old pit, which is visited and hung with garlands. These customs seem to hark back to an old rite propitiating the spirit of the well (or the ocean).

In the early 19th century, the Halliwell (Holy Well) Wake was held on this day in the hamlet of Rorrington on the Shropshire/Wales border. The local people met at the holy well on the hillside at Rorrington Green and decorated with well with green boughs, flowers and rushes. A maypole was erected. While a fife, drum and fiddle played, the people danced and frolicked around the hill, followed by feasting, drinking and more dancing.

In Italy, Ascension is called La Festa del Grillo, the outdoor festival of crickets. People spend the day outdoors, reclining under the shade of trees, feasting on picnic and BBQ foods. Kids look for crickets, true symbols of spring, poking a piece of grass into their holes to lure them into cages already prepared with a piece of lettuce at the bottom. Nowadays the crickets are sold in pretty painted cages.

According to Toor, the Etruscans called the cricket scarabeus and honored it. The Greeks and Romans connected its chirping to the muses and music. The Greeks and Etruscans believed that the longer the confined grillo lived, the longer the life of its owner. The murals of Pompei depict tiny grillo cages made of reed. In Florence, they say that a singing grillo brings good luck. Freeing them also brings good luck. Children sing a song to their caged grillos (which reminds me of the American lady bug song):

Grillo, mio Grillo                    Cricket, my Cricket,
Se tu vo’ moglie dillo!              If you want a wife say so!
Se poi t’un la voi,                     If later you repent
Abbada a’ fatti tuoi!                 Then hold your peace!


Field, Carol, Celebrating Italy, William Morrow 1990
Hole, Christina, A Dictionary of British Folk Customs, Paladin 1978
Spicer, Dorothy Gladys, The Book of Festivals, The Woman’s Press 1937
Toor, Frances, Festivals and Folkways of Italy, Crown 1953
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Earth Day/Arbor Day

Earth Day is a fairly new holiday. Earth Day was first proclaimed on March 21, the Spring Equinox in San Francisco in 1970. Doesn’t that seem perfect? The spring after the Summer of Love. Just a few weeks later, also in 1970, Senator Gaylord Nelson, a Senator from Wisconsin, called for an Environmental Teach-in (modeled after the Vietnam war sit-ins) on April 22, which had been celebrated for many years as Arbor Day.

Arbor Day is almost one hundred years older than Earth Day, but still young for a holiday. In 1872, J. Sterling Morton, the Secretary of the Nebraska Territory, declared April 10 a day for planting trees (according to this history compiled by the Arbor Day Foundation).  In 1885, it was declared a legal holiday in the State of Nebraska and moved to April 22, Morton’s birthday. It was adopted as a holiday by other states but the date has varied, depending on when tree planting is ideal. It is now usually celebrated on the last Friday in April but it seems to have fallen out of favor as Earth Day has gained popularity.

Venus Verticordia by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Although Arbor Day and Earth Day are relatively new holidays, they align with many older traditions. There are many ancient April festivals which honor the goddess as garden guardian (Venus Verticordia on April 1) and Earth mother (Megalisa on April 3, Cerealia on April 13, and Fordicalia on April 15). April is also the month of St. George (his feast day is April 23), the dragon slaying saint. For centuries, the celebrations in honor of St. George have associations with verdant nature. The very name George means farmer.

In Carinthia and Transylvania, a birch tree or willow tree, decked with flowers, is called Green George. Sometimes a boy is dressed up in branches, leaves and flowers. Albanians slaughter a lamb on this day and smear blood on sills (recalling the Jewish holiday of Passover) to protect them from evil. Before an icon of St George, they pray: “Holy St George, this year thou hast sent me this lamb, next year, I beseech you, send me a larger one.” People go on picnics and weigh themselves holding sprigs of green. St George or Mari Ghergis is the most popular saint in Egypt where he is associated with El Khider, the green man, who appears to travelers who are lost or in despair.

Mrs Sharp (an alter ego of Sarah Ban Breathnach) celebrates Earth Day by doing an inventory garden tools and supplies. She makes presents of gardening gloves and other accessories. Each of her children has a tree, and on this day they clean around their own tree and tie a ribbon on the trunk to honor it.

On the very first Arbor Day, more than one  million trees were planted in Nebraska. Planting a tree can still be a great way to celebrate.

Or you can simply admire trees. Go on  a tree walk like the one I took two weeks ago at the University of Washington with our local plant and tree expert, Arthur Lee Jacobson.
I was delighted when we entered the quad which is famous for its flowering cherry trees and found it thronged with people. Students were lounging on the lawns. Japanese families were taking photos of their young ones under the trees. The profusion of pink flowers seemed like an ample reason for celebration.

If you don’t have knowledgeable guide, the Arbor Day Foundation provides this useful key which will help you identify trees.

In honor of Earth Day, experiment with eating only local food. Determine what foods are available within 250 miles of your home and create meals based on those foods. Find out where your eggs come from. Visit a local farm. Stop at a roadside stand. Invite your friends for a feast or a potluck to celebrate local foods.

Al Khidr web site (source of picture)

Arbor Day Foundation web site
Blackburn, Bonnie and Leofranc Holford-Strevens, Oxford Companion to the Year, Oxford University Press, 1999
Breathnach, Sarah Ban, Mrs Sharp’s Traditions, Simon & Schuster 1990
Funk and Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology & Legend, Maria Leach, editor, Harper and Row 1984
Rufus, Anneli, The World Holiday Book, Harper San Francisco 1994
Morrow, Susan Brind, The Names of Things, Riverhead 1997
Spicer, Dorothy Gladys, The Book of Festivals, The Woman’s Press 1937
Wikipedia article on Earth Day

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