Celebrating History – Making Women, A Hero in the Labor Movement, and Holidays both Solemn and Joyous

March comes roaring in with a month-long recognition of the remarkable women who have influenced the development of America and ends with a national day dedicated to the modest folk hero who brought dignity and fairness to farm workers. Scattered throughout the month are religious observations such as Ramadan, the most solemn of Muslim holidays; Purim, the Jewish holiday following The Fast of Esther; and Holi, also a joyous festival featuring family and friends, food, and fun!

March is National Women’s History Month and comes with its own long history. It took 76 years from the establishment of International Women’s Day on March 8, 1911, to the 1987 Congressional declaration of March as Women’s History Month. Now an annual national observance, March is an opportunity for all Americans to learn more about how women have shaped the country—from leading voting rights movements, to winning many Nobel Prizes for scientific and medical breakthroughs, to contributing to American culture and society.

This year’s theme, “Celebrating Women Who Tell Our Stories,” recognizes women as the keepers of history, tradition, and family lore, preserving history while also promoting our understanding of, and connection to, others. Through the Smithsonian’s “Because of HER Story,” you can explore the role of women in activism, health, science, and innovation here. With a separate theme to embrace equity, explore 21 Ways to Celebrate International Women’s Day on March 8 here.  

Purim, one of the most joyous and festive holidays in Judaism, begins this year on March 7. The holiday marks the incredible 5th century BC defeat of Persian rulers who had secretly plotted to kill all the Jews in the empire. Queen Esther—wife of the Persian Emperor and, unbeknownst to all, a Jew herself—found out about the plan and informed her husband of the treachery, and of her true ancestry. The king forgave Esther and gave the Jews permission to defend themselves, turning the tables on their enemies. Today, many observant Jews acknowledge the holiday by reading the “scroll” (i.e., the Book of Esther) at their synagogue.

On a more secular note, the story of Purim today is also celebrated through skits, sometimes with humorous or pop culture themes, costume parties and masks, carnivals, and parades. Sharing and caring for others are also central to the holiday, with baskets of food and drink exchanged among friends and neighbors, and gifts of food or money made to the poor so they may celebrate, as well.

For information about the meaning of Purim, how it is celebrated today, and more, click here.  

Holi, or the Festival of Colors, is celebrated on March 8, marking the arrival of a blossoming spring and the end of winter. Celebrated by all religions across India and Southeast Asia, Holi festivals also take place in the United States, the UK, Canada, Australia, and other countries with large Indian communities. Besides the beginning of spring, Holi also symbolizes the joys of love, the victory of good over evil, and starting anew.

On Holi, vibrant colored powders and waters take center stage. On the morning of the festival, some participants place a touch of color on their forehead, while others smear their entire body with a rainbow of hues, each color with a different meaning. A bucket of colored water is used to douse family, friends, or even strangers passing by. That’s in addition to the water pistols and water balloons children prepare early in the day. After several hours of drinks, snacks, and dancing, revelers bathe and change into clean, neatly ironed clothes for lunch, signifying the end of exuberant Holi activities.

To learn 5 things about Holi, click here.

This year, Ramadan runs from sundown, March 22, through April 21. Considered one of the most sacred times on the Muslim calendar, Ramadan is observed by daily fasting from sunrise to sunset, with exceptions for children and people who are elderly, pregnant, or ill. Muslims believe that fasting—one of the Five Pillars of Islam—makes them more sensitive to the suffering of the poor and cleanses their soul so that Allah may forgive them. Beyond participating in the usual five daily prayers, many Muslims may also visit their mosque for several hours of additional worship during the month-long event.

What foods are eaten and when varies by culture. For example, having a pre-dawn meal is common, and once sundown arrives, the day-long fast is broken by eating something light, such as the traditional dates. Family and friends usually share a larger meal once evening prayers are done, and some then gather for communal prayer. In some locales, a vibrant culinary nightlife has emerged where restaurants and cafes stay open all night for eating and socializing. 

To learn more about this holy month, click here. For information about Ramadan fasting and the role of different foods and drinks, visit here

In 2014, President Barack Obama proclaimed March 31 as Cesar Chavez Day, a federal commemorative holiday. Chavez’s father, a small farmer, was swindled out of receiving the deed to land he cleared.  Cesar himself experienced injustice and racism while in school. Both experiences fueled Chavez’s lifelong advocacy for the dignity and fair treatment of farm workers who often labored under life- and health-threatening conditions. To push for change, Chavez and Dolores Huerta, a powerful American labor leader and civil rights activist, joined forces and founded the National Farm Workers Association (NFW) union in 1962 which later became the United Farm Workers (UFW). Inspired by the non-violent approaches of Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and his own strong Catholic faith, Chavez’s hunger strikes, picketing, boycotts, and other protests were nonetheless, often met with violence.

During his career, Chavez gained formal protections for farmworkers including eliminating the use of the dangerous pesticide DDT, prohibiting the spraying of pesticides while workers are in the fields, and requiring protective clothing against other pesticides, fair wages, and humane housing. By 1970, California grape growers accepted union contracts. As an activist for voting, environmental and consumer rights, Chavez was awarded the Presidential Medal of Honor posthumously for work that led to making life better for today’s 2.5 million farmworkers.

To learn about Chavez and the farmworkers’ movement, check out his foundation or read about his remarkable life and legacy from the UFW here.  

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