When was the last time you were part of a holiday celebration that you felt really good about? Wouldn’t you like to have a celebration you could share with everybody, devoted to those things we all share: life and the planet? I know I would. I find the following proposal both outrageous and promising. With a little help from each other, it just might work. Richard Register lives in Berkeley, California.
In The Beginning
TOWARD THE END of December 1969, I was visiting my friends Kirsten and Michael in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where I had grown up, trying to enjoy the festive season of the birthday of the Prince of Peace – a tough assignment, with the Vietnam War raging, giving me nightmares and making nightmares of the lives of millions of people. The depressing quality of the times was on all our minds, prompting us to wonder if there wasn’t a better way to have fun and celebrate our cherished personal insights about peace, hope, and commitment to a better future.
In the midst of a lively assessment of our faith in humanity, someone said, "Well, what would a real holiday be like anyway?"
First of all, we agreed, a real holiday would have to be for everybody. And we meant everybody. Enough of nationalism, commercialism, ethnocentrism, speciescentrism – away with self-centered exclusivity of all kinds! Early in our conversation, Michael noted that the word "holiday" looked like "holy day." A dictionary disclosed the relationship to the Greek word "holos," meaning "all." So there was nothing too radical in our idea that it should be for everybody.
Then we asked ourselves what we would do at such a time. Many of the ideas that came rapidly to mind were well- established in present religious, national and ethnic holiday traditions: To rededicate ourselves to understanding the purpose of our existence and our place in the world – perhaps even the universe – both as individuals and as members of the human race; to create and enjoy music, poetry and art; to pray, recite, meditate on the theme of peace; to give gifts (a good idea but much too often commercialized); to gather joyfully with others.
We realized a lot was going on in our great traditional holidays and in other large events, both good and bad – the moon shot, John Kennedy’s assassination. Such events as fairs, expos and Woodstock, such mass outpourings of the human conscience as the civil-rights marches of the ’60s, undisputedly were powerful tools of communication and education (or propaganda). People in large numbers use great occasions to spread their values, to entrench or reexamine their traditions, to reinvigorate their sense of purpose. Could we redirect these great events and holidays to focus on balance with nature and peace with each other?
"Nah – give up on them," said Michael. "Let them be. They aren’t designed to do what needs to be done. It’s not in their nature. They are all in-group oriented, the initiated setting themselves apart. We need to create a new holiday." But who could possibly do that? Us?! Three people of rather fitful means sharing another low-to-moderate-income Christmas? Not likely.
But since we were dreaming, we decided to dream on. The idea was cheerful, maybe would lead somewhere, and gave us some room for hope.
"Silence," said Kirsten. "We’d have to quiet down and pay attention for a while. We’d have to observe where we are, what we’re doing. You can’t listen if you are always running around making noise, acting like you have all the answers. You need to stop and be silent for a while."
So one idea would be that everything would stop. All machines except emergency life-supporting technology would shut down for a day. Nothing would be constructed, nothing destroyed. People would walk down freeways empty of cars and trucks, battlefields would be silent, cities would murmur with nothing louder than hearty laughs or the sounds of birds singing. We’d all just step back a little and feel and think about what we are doing to the Earth, to each other and to ourselves. Acknowledging our technological addiction to finite energy resources, we’d contemplate alternative ways of accomplishing what we want to do – and examine more closely what we really want to do in the first place.
We decided, then, that peace and ecology would have to be central themes and that the lessons to be taught by a world holiday would have to be in the form of such direct experiences as planting trees, harvesting food, building solar-energy panels, or recycling reusable materials. Other lessons would come from getting to know the areas we live in better by walking or bicycling – from using no oil or gasoline, creating no pollution. Maybe we could get people to turn off their electricity for a day – no artificial light or heat for a night – and watch the stars sparkle over great cities in the clear skies and darkness of nature.
We were just plain stunned, as we sat there thinking about it, by the image of everybody doing something together – almost anything together. What a powerful notion: to channel all of humanity’s mental and, I venture to say under the circumstances, spiritual energy into one shared pattern, even for just a brief time. It seemed to us we’d stumbled upon a tool with the potential to face up to and prevail over all the crazy problems and confusing finds we’ve gotten ourselves into. Maybe something big enough and positive enough to deflect even our apparently lemming-like drive to extinction. Our kind of world holiday might be able to unite us all in life, to transform the trend toward nuclear war and ecological collapse that would unite us all in death.
The idea fascinated me. I decided I’d see what I could do about it when I returned to California in the New Year.
Though it had been an original idea for us, I discovered soon enough that others had similar thoughts. For example, some people had been trying to make the anniversary of the signing of the United Nations Charter into a world holiday, but it wasn’t sticking.
In my own mind, the world-holiday idea was little more than a week old when I found myself following a lead in Venice, California. A friend said, "You should talk to Paul Encimer – he’s got lots of ideas about things like this." So there I was in the office of the Venice Draft Counseling Center with Paul. As he sat there on the table, it was obvious he’d been up into the wee hours with a bottomless cup of coffee advising an endless procession of anguished, fearful, angry and confused young men.
"First of all," he said, "if you’re going to have a day related to nature, you should let nature choose the date." People and all their works, he said, have already imposed far too much on nature; this holiday should be dictated by nature’s own calendar. And the natural calendar contains four high holidays that relate to the whole planet: the December and June solstices, when the sun appears farthest south and north, and the March and September equinoxes, when the sun passes over the equator on its journey from one hemisphere to the other.
Paul favored one or both of the equinoxes, because at these times the sun sheds equal light on both northern and southern hemispheres. It is a powerful symbol – and an actual fact – of planetary balance and harmony. Paul also pointed out that in strictly observing the equinoxes, people would experience a precise moment of time, everywhere on Earth, simultaneously. If, for example, you welcome the equinox at midnight in Honolulu, others would be honoring it at noon in Helsinki, at 6:00 a.m. in Santiago, and 6:00 p.m. in Shanghai – but everyone would share the same exact moment. More than that, the exact time of the equinoxes changes from year to year. This would emphasize the uniqueness of every locality and individual situation – precisely what we need to keep in mind to solve our planetary problems.
After talking with Paul, I felt almost dizzy. The world- holiday concept now existed in satisfying integrity, but timing was the key to putting it in motion.
If only application of large ideas were as easy as their formulation! Yet flashes of inspiration and recognition have to be worked out in blood, sweat and tears. Implementation raised issues of timing in another sense. The beginning of the decade of the ’70s, when the Age of Aquarius was dawning – I thought that was a perfect time. Art Seidenbaum, a columnist at the Los Angeles Times, put me in touch with Denis Hayes, who was organizing Earth Day for April of that year. And I also learned of a certain John McConnell in New York, who was organizing a small but ambitious event to mark the beginning of spring. Here was someone else contemplating the world-holiday concept – and Denis was organizing what could be its closest approximation to date.
Earth Day turned out to be the largest demonstration-like, intentionally educational event the Earth had ever seen, involving something like 20 million people in a dozen countries.
Riding the wave of hopefulness of the times, and believing the signs were all excellent, I plunged into organizing. By 1972, I’d formed a nonprofit educational corporation in California, with about 30 other concerned and optimistic people. We called it World Community Events, Inc., and through it we rescheduled Earth Day on the March equinox and another observance, to be called World Life Day, for the September equinox. We organized more than a dozen events in San Diego; Los Angeles; Santa Fe, and Arcosanti, Arizona. John McConnell in New York, coordinating with our efforts on the West Coast, refined his timing and celebrated the March equinox at the precise moment when the sun passed over the equator. He was fond of "ringing the peace bell" at the United Nations, and is still doing it. He assembled an impressive roster of other luminaries who agreed that world holiday was a good idea and the equinox a good time. Among them were Buckminster Fuller, Harold Urey, George Wald, Issac Asimov, Julian Bond, Stewart Brand, Margaret Mead, Carl Sagan, Lowell Thomas, Paul Ehrlich, Judith Crist, and Rene Dubos. John Lindsay and the mayors of Los Angeles, San Diego and Santa Fe made their obligatory proclamations. I talked Pete Wilson, now a United States senator from California, into calling for a silent coffee break at the moment of the equinox in San Diego when he was mayor in 1973. It happened to fall a few minutes after 10:00 a.m. Pacific Standard Time that year. Thus was Kirsten’s idea of silence observed by several thousand puzzled people: "The Mayor says we’re supposed to contemplate our impact on the Earth and to imagine ways of solving our environmental and energy problems – at the water cooler?!"
The following year, 1974, we produced in San Diego a good forerunner of the sort of celebration we imagined for future equinoxes. World Community Events and the San Diego Ecology Centre cosponsored a series of events that lasted 11 days. We called it Earth Week, and by the time it was over, a lot of minds were opened a little more than before, and some few were really inspired. But it didn’t last.
Two years later I decided to shelve my efforts. World Community Events, Inc., faded away. The state said that as far as they were concerned, we weren’t an organization any more. They were right.
Cut to 1983. Something’s terribly wrong, and almost everyone feels it. The current United States government seems to be encouraging an escalation of the arms race destined to take the present precarious world situation into the realm of international Russian roulette. The Russians claim they must follow suit. When the best vision of the future these leaders can muster reads like a Star Wars script, it’s time for the people to come up with their own ideas.
One of the most interesting and promising developments: For the last three years an organization called World Citizens Assembly, with several thousand members scattered around the world, has staged March equinox events linked by a satellite-connected international telephone-conference call. At the time of the equinox, no matter what time it happens to be in any particular locality, people in their network will connect with each other by phone, each location reporting some recent steps in progress toward a brighter future. These citizens of the world have called in to one another from France, England, Canada, the US, India, Japan, Thailand, Mexico, Australia and other countries.
This is just one example of a growing number of worldwide events linked to the equinoxes, which suggests that the time may soon be ripe for trying again. This time we hope to learn from the past and get it right!
So far there has been no strategy for nursing the world holiday through infancy and carefully building interest and participation. The organizers have simply put out a general invitation. From my experience, I doubt if such a nonstrategy will work.
About a year ago I decided to try to figure out a new approach. Bouncing off the nuclear crisis, and hoping to use some of the positive energy of the anti-nuclear war movement, I came up with the notion of a chain reaction of the human spirit to overwhelm and cancel out the atomic chain reaction of a potential nuclear war. The plan calls for something like the crass chain letter, or a pyramid scheme, but with the benefits spreading outward, not back to the initiators. The pyramid would be inverted and ideally become so top-heavy that goodwill would get out of hand and run amok through the world!
Here’s the proposal: Set up a fund to see the project through to the international involvement of at least 500 organizations. Certainly by then the idea would have caught on – or we’d learn the reason why. My calculation is that it would take four years; it would require advance financing for three years. A fairly well worked out budget, including plenty for international phone calls, would come in around $75,000 – no more in three years than a dentist of average ability would make in a single year. Compared to the money it takes to put on a major exposition, that’s paltry indeed. There’s surely a way to get that kind of money together and, if this is to be taken seriously, the money should be in hand before starting the program.
After the funds are secured, a pledge would be made by a small number of participating organizations. The pledge would read something like this: "We, the directors and officers of the organization identified herein, are empowered by our legal instruments to make and carry out policy for said organization. In full recognition of the gravity of mankind’s growing problems of survival on Earth, and in recognition of the positive potential of the World Holiday, if established, we pledge to help give birth to that event for the community of life on Earth, in the following manner: We agree to celebrate every equinox, for a minimum of four years, in a way we deem appropriate to our organization and appropriate to the purposes implicit in the World Holiday itself. We further agree that, as part of each equinox celebration for four years, we will bring one more organization into the circle of organizations making this pledge." Progress would be exponential: 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512… The kinds of organizations making the pledge would include international ecology and peace groups; cultural, scientific, artistic and athletic exchange programs; sister-city programs (two cities at a time); and ecumenical and service organizations.
Making It Happen
I believe the equinox holidays are exactly the right kind of meditation by the planetary mind on precisely the right things at the right time, which may be a phenomenon of unfathomed scale and positive potential. But we will never know unless we give it a good try. If you would like to help birth this vision – through money, appropriate organizations, or ideas – contact me at 415/548-7801 or c/o Urban Ecology, 1939 Cedar St., Berkeley, CA 94709.
Adapted from an article which first appear in the Fall 1983 issue of World’s Fair (PO Box 339, Corte Madera, CA 94925, $24/year)