Times Past

SLO students learn of the winter solstice’s many religions, traditions

Janis Eto with a Bodhi Tree speaking of the Buddha’s golden chain of love that stretches around the world to students at Hawthorne Elementary School in San Luis Obispo.
Janis Eto with a Bodhi Tree speaking of the Buddha’s golden chain of love that stretches around the world to students at Hawthorne Elementary School in San Luis Obispo.

“My father,” said Craig Russell, Cal Poly’s famed music history professor, “used to emphasize the inherent value of each person. I remember one day when he pulled me over, looked me in the eye to make sure I was attentive and said to me in his most heartfelt voice, ‘Craig, don’t underestimate anybody. Everybody (including the janitor who pushes the broom down the office building hallway where you might work) knows something important that you need to learn and know.’”

It was a day to remember in Laura Kirchner’s class at Hawthorne Elementary School in San Luis Obispo. Four people with a gift for sharing their stories with children had their rapt attention.

Russell shared some of the centuries-old Our Lady of Guadalupe music he had uncovered and pieced together. He was joined by Susie Eto Bauman and Janis Eto speaking on Bodhi Day and Dr. Donald Smilovitz speaking on Hanukkah.

The Winter Solstice unites many people from throughout the world. Many of the world’s historic religions regard this time as sacred space.

Bodhi Day, Dec. 8, marks the day in the 5th century that the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, experienced enlightenment while seated beneath a pipal (Ficus religiosa or sacred fig) tree. Eto, standing in front of the Bodhi Tree she had made, explained how the Buddha discerned a “Middle Way” to end the endless suffering in this world.

Eto Bauman, who grew up in the Los Osos Valley, quietly talked about how she and her husband, Leo Kukuchi, were “relocated” to a freezing cold internment camp in Amache, Colorado in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor.

She recalled how her husband told her that he and his buddies were going to join the 442nd regiment consisting of Japanese American citizens. They felt that they “must go to prove to the U.S. government that we are not traitors.”

Within a year, Kukuchi was killed in Italy. Eto Bauman was left with two young boys to raise. The Buddha’s teaching of acceptance of change helped Eto Bauman, but the tragedy she endured was apparent on the faces of the Hawthorne students.

Dr. Donald Smilovitz, who regularly volunteers at Hawthorne, told the story of Hanukkah, in which the Jewish people regained their freedom from a foreign conqueror. He lit his family’s nine-branch menorah celebrating the miracle of the oil at the recently liberated Temple in Jerusalem. There was only enough oil remaining to light the lamp for a day, but it remained lit for eight days.

The students ate donuts fried in oil and spun dreidels, tops originally molded from clay, with the Hebrew letters forming the acronym, “a great miracle happened there,” meaning at the temple.

Smilovitz explained what this struggle for religious freedom for the Jewish people 2,181 years ago meant for his family. They left Eastern Europe and migrated to America.

Russell, a specialist on the development of music in Spain’s New World colonies, spoke of the 500-year- old tradition celebrating when “La Virgen Morena (the olive-skinned Virgin)” appeared before Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin on the hill of Tepeyac near Mexico City from Dec. 9 through Dec. 12 , 1531.

The miracle of Mary appearing to a humble peasant, Russell noted, eased the depression, fear and pain of the Spanish conquest experienced by the Aztec people. Juan Diego reminded Russell of his father’s insistence that “everybody,” great and small, “knows something important that you need to learn and know.”

And then the children were caught up in the glorious music.

This column is by Liz and Dan Krieger. Liz is a retired children’s librarian, and Dan is Professor of History, Emeritus at Cal Poly State University, San Luis Obispo. He is past President of the California Mission Studies Association, now part of the California Missions Foundation. He can be reached at slohistory@gmail.com.