A Little Holiday Co-opting of My Own November 1, 2009

A Little Holiday Co-opting of My Own

Wizard and telescope

The various holidays that plague enliven the year have all gone through a complicated process of being co-opted. Each successive culture that has conquered or prevailed over a previous culture has adapted local holidays to fit its own agenda, drawing the conquered populace into participating in the new culture. So local animist holidays were co-opted into Celtic forms, then Roman forms, then Roman Catholic forms, then Protestant forms, and in the United States, the latest co-opting has been into Capitalist forms.

Last night, we celebrated Celtic Harvest, Livestock Slaughter and Passing of the Dead Festival Co-opted to Roman Pagan Harvest, Livestock Slaughter and Passing of he Dead Festival Co-opted to Roman Catholic All Saints Vigil/Feast Co-opted to Capitalist Subconscious Psycho-Sexual Sado-Masochistic Eros-Thanatos Paravestite Fetish Fantasy Catharsis and Candy Consumption Night, otherwise known to the less informed as Halloween.

Since it’s such a thoroughly co-opted holiday, I’ve been trying a little co-opting of my own, turning a tiny part of it into Turn Away From Superstitious Nonsense For a Brief Moment and Be Amazed at the Real Universe Night.

It’s the only night of the year when thousands of kids and their parents are outside in the dark. So each year, weather permitting, I set up one of my telescopes in front of my house and show them one of the wonders of the night sky. I dress up in a classic wizard costume because part of the co-opting process is to resemble the previous culture’s holiday.

Last night, Jupiter was very well placed high in the southern sky, and the full moon was far to the East. The weather was perfect. About 200 little kids dressed as princesses, ghouls and ghosts came by with their parents, as well as teens in their inexplicable costumes, all on their quest for candy. Several said, “Hey it’s the telescope man!” They remembered me from previous years. That feels good.

My wife handed out the goodies while the kids and grownups took turns viewing Jupiter, a pale disk with tan stripes bracketed by two pairs of tiny moons on either side, all lined up straight. They all seemed to enjoy it, giving exclamations of astonishment. Even the few teens who were feigning being jaded brightened up and got excited.

I told them a few interesting facts just to plant the seeds of the love of science. The bit of information that was the biggest hit was that the planet is so far away it takes the light about 40 minutes to reach us, so we see it as it was and where it was 40 minutes ago. A telescope is a time machine that looks into the past. The adults showed the same expression of awe as the youngsters.

I really love doing things like this. If there’s a secular version of a “calling” this is mine. There is so much wonder, mystery and beauty in the real universe, the real world all around us. So much to inspire our best emotions, our best thoughts and our best actions.

I wish you all a very happy Reality Day. That’s any and every day.

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  • muggle

    What a cool treat, Richard. Too bad we don’t live in your neighborhood. I know my grandson would love this.

  • That is so cool!!!

    My husband and I have taken our kids to a couple of astronomy nights to look planets through real telescopes. One was the 100 Hours of Astronomy (where a bunch of people brought telescopes to a common location and allowed the public to look through them), and the other was at Princeton University a couple of weeks ago — they had an open observatory night where the astronomers set up their observatory telescope to point at Jupiter, and let the public come look through it.

    But as fun as these sorts of events are, you have to be interested enough in Astronomy already to have heard of them. But just setting up the telescope on Halloween is a fantastic idea!! I hope it catches on, and everyone who has a telescope starts doing it!

  • Adele

    This is brilliant. Thank you so much.

  • Shannon

    Very cool! I think I’ll stick to calling it Halloween though. It might make me sound less informed, but at least I won’t stutter my way through the name, lol! 😉

  • Awesome. I shall steal your idea.

  • Q-Squared

    That’s so awesome, and sounds like loads of fun! I’ll stick to calling it International Candy/Food Day (I go on a whirl in the international aisle at the grocery store- Pocky and Botan Rice Candy, no trick-or-treating for me).

    Again, absolutely FANTASTIC! 😀

  • I like the idea. Perhaps I will set my telescope up next year if it is a clear night. I might try to mount a camcorder on the eye-piece and display the image on a lap-top screen. That might work out better for my situation for the holiday called… for the holiday formally known as “Halloween”

  • David D.G.

    As a lifelong astronomy buff myself, I have to say that this is awesome. Richard, you rock so hard, you are a bonafide diamond. Way to go!

    ~David D.G.

  • Alan E.

    I was at a party at a friend’s house last night, and they have a decent telescope on their patio. It took me about 20-30 minutes to pinpoint Jupiter–even when I found it was by accident–because the site is broken. Once I did, it became a hit of the party. People’s favorite part was being able to see at least 4 moons when all they’ve probably ever seen themselves was a bright spot in the sky. It was so cool to be able to geek out and be a popular one at the party. Number one question of the night though, was if one could see where they crashed into the moon. Spurred some great ethical debates about whether we have the right or obligation to cause damage to the moon. The number 2 question was why the moons were all lined up. It seemed to be eerily foreboding to some that it would look so perfect way up there.

  • Andrea

    Wish I lived in your town! Too cool!

  • Miko

    That is a fantastic idea.

  • Nefzeni

    Aw, I wish you a very happy Reality Day too, Richard.

    Can’t help but wish this Reality (Day) came a little bit more often to a little bit more people, though…

  • This winter I plan on getting my Celestron C5+ out and doing some time-traveling.

  • Erin

    Awesome. Love it! Kudos to you!!!

  • Kelley

    Is that costume homemade?

  • I love astronomy, and I love history, and I love your take on co-opting holidays–certainly the most comprehensive list of participants! It’s absolutely true that cultural holidays have been mostly co-opted by capitalism.

    Great post. Will share on Facebook. I was out watching the moon and Jupiter for a few minutes Halloween night, although I don’t know if it was in the present or past.

  • For those of you with or without telescopes who are interested in panning around the moon, Mars, and the night sky (while sitting at your computer) Google Earth now has a feature where you can switch to these other items. Look in the toolbar at the top and click on the button that looks a little like a planet. Enjoy.

  • absent sway

    What a wonderful idea–thanks for sharing!

  • Richard Wade

    Yes, the costume is homemade. I designed it, made the pattern and cut the cloth, and my wonderful wife sewed the seams together.

    To everyone, thank you for your compliments. I must clarify that this is not an original idea of mine. I learned of it through a member of my astronomy club, and who knows where he heard it. He does it in his neighborhood too.

  • Karen

    Terrific fun, Richard! I bet you’re the hit of the neighborhood on Halloween. 🙂

  • What a cool idea! Wish I had the knowledge and equipment to do something similar in my own neighborhood.

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