My mother is Jewish and my father is Christian, so my family has always had a hard time picking holidays. My parents always had to choose between giving me my presents on Hanukkah or Christmas, and Passover was even more awkward. I found the idea of ritualizing the trials of my ancestors very compelling, but the concept that the Israelites are “God’s chosen people” freaked me out. What did that make my father and his family? What did that make me?
Holidays also shed light on humanity’s inclination toward pretty irrational thinking, and how much we’ve distanced ourselves from the world around us. What animal in its right mind would cut down a tree and drag it into its home? Not many. Sure, beavers do it too, but they have an excuse, and the good sense to leave out the electric lights.
Why not create a new holiday calendar that fulfills one of our oldest and strongest desires: to connect with the natural world? Instead of commemorating mythical happenings or events we don’t have good proof actually occurred, why not celebrate the real universe and our place in it? Over the course of the past few centuries, science has pieced together a creation story longer, weirder and more overwhelming than most religions ever dared to imagine. And we’ve barely begun the task of connecting ourselves to our newfound ancestry emotionally.
Part of the reason is that the timescales involved are so vast, it’s hard to know where to start. Science popularizer Carl Sagan invented a good metaphor for conveying the immensity of the timescales involved: the cosmic calendar. The idea is to condense the entire history of the known universe into a single year, so that the beginning of each year marks the beginning of the universe, and the end of each year marks the present day. This way, events in the history of the universe fall on the cosmic calendar like holidays.
So why not celebrate events on the cosmic calendar? Here are a few ideas how:
January 1. The universe forms
At home: Post a black or dark blue poster in your playroom or near your kids’ activity area. Ask a school-age child to write the word “Universe” in white crayon at the top.
Excursion: Stargazing. Stars haven’t formed yet at this point, but there’s no better way to get a sense of how vast the universe is in space and time and how small we are than lying on your back and gazing at the stars. (If you end up making snow angels, all the better!) Ask your children to envision just that: how small we are, how much plain SPACE is out there and how amazing it is that it all somehow came to be.
May. Our galaxy, the Milky Way, forms
At home: The formation of the galaxy was complex, but an easy way to show that we now have one is to dot your poster with glue all over, pour on the glitter, and shake off the excess. Bingo! A net of stars. (In anticipation of our solar system, pencil in eight concentric rings before you glitter. These will become the eight planets’ orbits. And be sure to leave room in the center for the soon-to-come sun!) Add “Milky Way” in glitter, too.
Excursion: Visit your closest planetarium. Earth hasn’t formed yet, but there are oodles of other older stars to discover under one of these big domes.
August 30. The sun and planets form
At home: To celebrate the birth of our solar system, help your child outline the eight planetary orbits in glitter. Draw, glitter, and cut out a sun and place it in the center of the galaxy, then create an earth and place it on the third ring. If you want to add the other planets, too, knock yourself out.
Excursion: To pay your respects to the sun, visit a working farm. As you walk around, talk to your child about how almost nothing living could thrive without the sun. Have a picnic and ask your child what any outside activity, from this lunch to playing soccer or climbing trees, would be like without the sun.
To celebrate the earth, plan a family nature walk. Stroll around your local park or a wooded area nearby or go for a full-blown hike. Invite your child to list some of his or her favorite things the Earth has provided.
September. The atmosphere and oceans form
At home: It’s time to layer another poster board on top of your universe-with-Milky-Way (or display beside it). Make this one white. Help your child divide it into sky and sea. Leave one quarter blank.
Excursion: A day on the water. Take your next Saturday afternoon to visit a nearby body of water, whether that’s the ocean, a river that runs through your city, a lake or the pond in the park. Standing beside it, have your child close his or her eyes and pay attention to how it actually feels to breathe, a life-giving action we often take for granted. (Oxygen didn’t actually form in the atmosphere until November. If you think your child is old enough to understand the difference between air and oxygen, invite her to imagine what it would be like to take in air but not feel like you were getting anything.) Next dip your child’s hands in the water, if it’s clean, or just offer a long drink of bottled water. The goal is to get him or her tuned into how precious both air and water are.
October 1. Life begins
At home: In one corner of your sea-and-sky poster board, help your child draw a small single-cell organism in pencil or pen, just a tiny empty circle. Leave enough room in the middle of the circle to add a dot of a nucleus when cells develop them, around November 1. Explain to your kid that before there were humans, animals or plants, there were just these guys.
Excursion/activity: Head to the library or bookstore (or Amazon) to pick up a copy of a fun, colorful book like The Life of a Cell or Cells Are Us or a DVD like Squibs – Inside: Cells, DNA, & Adaption that explains the wonder of the mini-universe within each cell.
After this point, major events unfold every day through the end of the year. In the blank remaining square, draw a calendar of the remaining days in December. Each day you and your child will make an icon representing the newest life form to evolve and add it to the square for that day.
December 17. Spiders and shellfish – one of each will do.
December 18. Fish
Excursion: Head for the aquarium to learn more about our gilled friends.
December 19. Land plants
Excursion: Your very own Arbor Day. Plant a tree in your own backyard or contact a local organization dedicated to reforestation.
December 20. Insects
Excursion: Go out and gather ants or other insects in your yard or at the park. Keep them in a ventilated jar for a day to watch them move around, then set them free.
December 21. Seeds
At home: Fill today’s square on the calendar entirely with seeds – sunflower, sesame, whatever you’ve got.
December 22. Amphibians
At home: Everyone – parents, too – has to do his or her best frog imitation. Ribbet! Hop!
Excursion: Head to the pet store for tadpoles (choose a species indigenous to your area) and an appropriate aquarium. Feed them, watch them transform and then keep one as a pet. I still have a little aquatic frog I grew as a kid – he’s fifteen now and going strong!
December 23. Reptiles
Excursion: Venture into the snake house at the zoo, if you’re brave.
December 24. Mammals
Excursion: Your local petting zoo, if it’s open, or maybe today’s the day to give your loyal family dog or cat extra love and attention.
At home: In the evening, sit your children down in front of the calendar and explain that it’s time to commemorate the Great Dying. Global warming seems to have depleted the oceans of oxygen, killing as much as 96% of sea species, and the air became toxic enough to kill many species on land. Most of the earth was a desert most of the time. (This thing was so devastating that it puts even the biblical flood to shame.) With your child, carefully take down and save all of the icons you’ve put on the calendar since the 17th. Leave the reptiles on the calendar – they somehow made it through.
December 25. Miraculously the earth recovered from the Great Dying, coming back from the brink of oblivion as if risen from its own ashes.
At home: Before your children wake up, put all of the icons back exactly where they were before. When your kids discover this “resurrection,” explain that while the Great Dying lasted a very long time – ten million years – that’s barely equivalent to a night in the big scheme of things. Make your family meal a feast of renewal and thanksgiving combined.
Excursion: Early morning walk. As a family, take a stroll around your neighborhood. Imagine what it would be like for it all to be destroyed. Then collect proof that life goes on – pine cones, berries, leaves. When you get home, display these treasures prominently in a bowl on your table, or add them to your calendar.
December 26. The fun’s not over yet – dinosaurs dominate the earth
At home: Add a stegosaurus (or similar) to the calendar.
Excursion: Now is the moment to visit your closest natural history museum, preferably one with awe-inspiring dinosaur skeletons. Also check out the hominids exhibit in preparation for the 29th and 30th.
December 27. Birds
At home: Add a bird icon to the calendar, or better yet, a found feather.
Excursion: If your local zoo has an aviary, go. Alternately, some nature preserves have great bird-watching opportunities, or you could make do with your own local avians – bathing blue jays and cardinals are beautiful and highly entertaining.
December 28. Flowers
Excursion: It’s the dead of winter, but your local botanical garden probably has a greenhouse. A local flower shop will work, too.
December 29. The first primates come into existence (Also, dinosaurs die out. Depending on your tyke’s attachment to T. Rex, you might keep that fact to yourself.)
At home: Primates were the first animals with opposable thumbs. Time for family thumb wars!
Excursion: The monkey house at your zoo or a national primate research center, if you’re near one.
December 30. The first hominids evolve
Excursion: See December 26.
December 31. The entire history (and prehistory) of humanity, from the first humans to the present day, would occupy the time it takes for the Times Square ball to drop on New Year’s Eve. The wheel would be invented just fifteen seconds before the end of the year.
At home: Decorate your final icons – of tools, writing scrolls, law books, hunting implements, the Pyramids, the Mayflower – and post them in the remaining space on your earth board. Stand back and admire the universal ground you’ve covered as a family since January 1st.
Excursion: Stargazing. Go back to where it all started, on your backs looking up at the sky. So that’s what 13 billion years feels like.