A muddled chronology of annual holidays that connects, among other things, Groundhog Day to an Irish saint and May Day to 19th-century labor legislation in the state of Illinois.
Aveni (Astronomy and Anthropology/Colgate Univ.; Behind the Crystal Ball, 1996, etc.) follows the usual routes back through Babylonia, ancient Egypt, and Rome to pinpoint the origins of modern celebrations and trace their distortion over time by the vagaries of social change. Organized by month, this begins with a chapter considering the question of why January launches the new year. “February” explores the origins of both Groundhog Day and Valentine’s Day, “April” covers Easter/Passover, “June” portrays a time of mating, “October” unleashes the spirits of the underworld (Halloween), and “November” (The Day of the Dead) contemplates mortality. Not surprisingly—Aveni is an astronomer, after all—most of the holidays are tied historically to a solstice or an equinox, or to long-forgotten agricultural calendars. (The first of February, for example, began the new year in old Celtic reckonings.) The author uses myths and legends from China, Arctic peoples, and the Maya, among others, to compare how various civilizations recognized or organized the course of the sun’s annual journey. A dramatic description of Serpent Day, celebrated at the spring equinox at the great pyramid of Chichen Itza, shows the sun’s course bringing to light an image of a great serpent along one of the pyramid’s edges. Unfortunately, such rewarding moments are rare; Aveni too often mixes his solid nuggets of information with pompous attempts at humor and commentary on such over-obvious aspects of contemporary culture as the (oh, no!) commercialization of Christmas.
Relating familiar material in self-conscious prose, this falls between the cracks of scholarly work and engaging popular history. (20 b&w illustrations, not seen)