Black History, Heart Health, and Holidays

For such a short month, February is packed with celebrations and other occasions…and we don’t just mean Valentine’s Day or Super Bowl Sunday! Designated in 1964 as American Heart Month, February is also a time to recognize the achievements of African Americans, and of two of the nation’s most prominent presidents. It also marks the beginning of Lent and the end of the Lunar New Year.

February is Black History Month, established by Congress in 1986 to honor and acknowledge the contributions made to our country by African Americans, past and present, even in the face of racism and oppression. The selection of February for this honor is significant, as both abolitionist and statesman, Frederick Douglass and President Abraham Lincoln—each keenly committed to ending slavery—were born during the month.

Studying Black history during February, and throughout the year advances understanding of ingrained cultural and political issues that continue to this day, including racism, voter suppression, and inequities in education, income, and healthcare access, to name a few.

PBS is presenting in-depth portraits of key figures and institutions that have informed the Black experience and our collective American history throughout the month. Click here to see programs on Emmet Till, John Lewis, Marian Anderson, Mohammed Ali, the role of the Black church, and more. Or, click here to listen to a collection of stories that celebrate the impact of Black historical figures and pioneers.

The death of Buddha is commemorated every year on February 15 (and February 8 in some places) with a multicultural festival on Nirvana Day. While celebrations vary worldwide, meditating and visiting temples or monasteries with offerings of food, money, clothing, or household items are common. In some areas, Nirvana Day is considered a social occasion with people sharing food and exchanging gifts.

Nirvana is said to be the end of the cycle of death and rebirth, “samsara,” reached when all want and suffering are gone. According to the Mahayana form of Buddhism (practiced in Central and East Asia), all beings can ultimately attain Buddhahood and their own Nirvana. It is also a time to meditate while thinking of recently departed family or friends. To learn more about how Nirvana is celebrated or about the role of Nirvana in Buddhism, click here or here.

Presidents’ Day, February 20, falls in the birthday month of Presidents George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Washington’s birthday (February 22) was first observed as a federal holiday back in the 1880s. In 1968, Congress declared that the third Monday in February each year would mark his birth, regardless of the actual date, creating a three-day weekend. Later designated Presidents’ Day, the occasion is now used by a number of states to recognize both Washington and Lincoln (born February 12, 1809).

Washington, a farmer without a formal education, served as the president of the Constitutional Convention, commander of the Continental Army, and as the first President of the United States. Lincoln is known for his leadership in preserving the Union during the Civil War and for issuing the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, marking the beginning of the end of slavery.

Presidents’ Day is honored with special ceremonies in Washington, D.C. and other cities across the nation. To learn more about George Washington, including his history with slaves, click here. For more about Abraham Lincoln’s life and contributions, click here.

This year, Ash Wednesday is February 22, marking the start of Lent for most Christians.

It comes on the heels of Mardi Gras—“Fat Tuesday”—which is traditionally the last day of feasting and frivolity before preparing one’s self for Christ’s resurrection at Easter.

Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent, a 40-day period of prayer, repentance, and contemplation, symbolic of Jesus’ trials in the desert as He resisted the temptation of Satan. Its name is drawn from the Biblical verse, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” On Ash Wednesday, worshipers may elect to have their foreheads marked with the sign of the cross, made by ashes from the palms used in the previous year’s Palm Sunday celebrations.

Besides prayer and attending Mass, many Roman Catholics also acknowledge Lent by giving up something as a form of fasting—typically a favorite treat or habit like eating chocolate, drinking, or watching TV—and avoiding meat on Ash Wednesday and Fridays. To learn more, click here

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