Kwanzaa: African-Americans embrace seven days of culture and heritage

African-Americans dance in a circle around room, drumming, informal, with colorful hanging papers around room

A Kwanzaa celebration at the University of California, Berkeley. Photo by Reginald James, courtesy of Flickr

FRIDAY, DECEMBER 26: Learn the seven principles and gather in the name of unity—for the seven-day commemoration of Kwanzaa. Created by Dr. Maulana Karenga in 1965 as the first completely African-American holiday, Kwanzaa celebrations honor African heritage and culture. Though originally associated with the black nationalist movement, Kwanzaa today is often focused on unity for all and on connecting Africans of the Diaspora with their native roots.

Specifically, the “seven principles” call to mind what Karenga refers to as a “communitarian African philosophy.” In 2014, the official Kwanzaa theme is Practicing the Culture of Kwanzaa: Living The Seven Principles.

Did you know? “Kwanzaa” is from the Swahili phrase matunda ya kwanza, or “first fruits of the harvest.”

Each day of Kwanzaa is dedicated to a principle, resulting in a total of seven Kwanzaa principles. The principles, though they may vary slightly in spellings, consist of: Umoja (unity); Kujichagulia (self-determination); Ujima (collective work and responsibility); Ujamaa (cooperative economics); Nia (purpose); Kumbaa (creativity); and Imani (faith).

Kwanzaa urges participants to maintain unity in family and race, to define themselves, to build community and profit together, and to always do what is possible at the moment. (Wikipedia has details.) Symbols and decorations aid in the unity of Kwanzaa observances, such as a decorative mat (mkeka), corn, a seven-candle holder (kinara) and a communal or unity cup. Often, an African feast—known as Karamu—is held on the sixth day of Kwanzaa, and gifts (zawadi) are exchanged on the seventh day.

Did you know? The proper greeting for Kwanzaa is “Joyous Kwanzaa.”

Plate of fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, cooked collard and other fried foods in dimly lit room

Soul food is common at the Kwanzaa table. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Household celebrations for Kwanzaa often include children, as do public Kwanzaa ceremonies. (Teachers and parents: You’ll find kid-oriented learning materials and resources at Community gatherings may include music, drumming, dancing, libations and the reading of the principles. Artistic performances, storytelling and ritual candle-lighting are also common.

In its 48 years of observance, Kwanzaa has spread in popularity throughout the United States and into Canada. Synthia Saint James’s Kwanzaa postage stamp became the first of its kind in 2007 and two years later, Maya Angelou narrated the Kwanzaa documentary, The Black Candle. (For DVD ordering information, visit the documentary’s website.) Celebrities including Oprah and Angelina Jolie are known to celebrate Kwanzaa each year (learn more fun facts—and take a quiz—at Hungry for a taste of Kwanzaa? Find recipes for traditional dishes, from sweet potatoes and collard greens to black-eyed peas, at Food Network and


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Categories: National Observances

Feast of St. Stephen: Tribute the protomartyr with Boxing Day and pie

Pile of mince meat pies with star cutouts on top and dusting sugar

Mincemeat pie is traditional fare on St. Stephen’s Day. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

FRIDAY, DECEMBER 26: The second day of Christmastide dawns in honor of the saint traditionally identified as Christianity’s first deacon and martyr: St. Stephen. (Note: In the Orthodox Christian tradition, St. Stephen is recognized one day later, on Dec. 27, per the Gregorian calendar.)

According to traditional accounts: St. Stephen was a deacon renowned for his care of the poor, and was held in high esteem by the Apostles. When the Apostles realized that their time would be devoted to preaching and no longer to caring for the poor, they appointed seven deacons for the task. One of the seven appointed deacons was Stephen. However, his persistent preaching led to trouble and, one day, he was stoned to death outside Jerusalem. (Learn more from the Catholic site, FishEaters.)


The Feast of St. Stephen has been observed for centuries, from Irish traditions related to wrens to the famous carol starring Good King Wenceslaus. (Find traditions, activities for the day, recipes and more at Catholic Culture.)

Down through the centuries, Christians have remembered St. Wenceslaus as a Bohemian duke born ca. 907 CE whose rejection of paganism earned him persecution by his mother and brother. When King Wenceslaus “looked out, on the Feast of Stephen,” he had just finished sharing a meal of mincemeat pie with the poor—fittingly, as the feast recalls a deacon whose responsibility was to care for the poor. (Wikipedia has details.) In many countries, Dec. 26 is known as Boxing Day,” when money saved throughout the year is distributed to the poor. St. Stephen’s Day pies and mincemeat pies are popular in many English-speaking countries. (BBC offers a hearty recipe.)


According to the Roman Catholic calendar, Christmas is the first day of the Christmas Octave. Following Christmas is the Feast of St. Stephen, the Feast of John the Apostle and the Feast of the Holy Innocents. Martyrs are collectively recognized for their respective sacrifices through these days until Jan. 1, which brings the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God. Each year, the Feast of the Holy Family falls on the Sunday within the Octave.

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Categories: Christian

Christmas and Nativity: 2 billion Christians celebrate Jesus’s birth

“Fear not for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior; which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you: You shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.”
Luke 2:11-12

Interior of ornate cathedral softly lit, crowd before towering Christmas tree and star and altar

Christmas service in Hamburg, Germany. Photo by Andi Graf, courtesy of Pixabay

THURSDAY, DECEMBER 25: Today is celebrated as Christmas, or the Nativity, by the vast majority of the world’s 2 billion Christians. While the birth year of Jesus is only speculated, December 25 is embraced by a multitude of Christians worldwide as the day Mary and Joseph knelt beside their newborn son in a manger. On Christmas Day in most of the Church, the season of Advent closes for Western Christians; the Nativity Fast ends for Eastern Christians; and the 12 days of Christmastide begin. In many countries, Christmas Day is a public holiday.

About half of Eastern Orthodox churches celebrate Christmas with Western Christians on December 25. That list includes the Orthodox churches in Bulgaria, Greece, Romania, Antioch, Constantinople, Alexandria, Albania, Cyprus and Finland—as well as the Orthodox Church in America.

Celebrating in January—for a variety of traditional reasons—are Orthodox churches in Russia, Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova, Serbia, Armenia, Egypt and Ethiopia. Mainly this variance involves the older Julian calendar, which pushes Christmas to January 7, but further wrinkles in the tradition affect some Armenians, Copts and Ethiopians. The very last Eastern Christmas will be celebrated by the Armenians living in Jerusalem, who won’t mark the holiday until January 19.


The Chronography of 354 AD provides record of a Roman celebration for the birth of Jesus on December 25; in the East, the birth of Jesus was already observed with the Epiphany, on January 6. In the Early Middle Ages, Christmas Day was outshone by Epiphany, though by the later medieval period, Christmas-related holidays were starting to become more popular.

From the formative years of the Church’s celebrations to the Nativity noted today, a multitude of customs have become associated with Christmas: displaying manger scenes, caroling, sending greetings and hanging stockings by a fireplace to name just a few. Certain saints have been responsible for creating some of the customs—namely, St. Francis of Assisi for the nativity scene, and St. Nicholas for stockings and candy canes—others are secular or even pre-Christian.

Christmas encountered turbulence through the 17th and 18th centuries, but by the 19th century, writers such as Charles Dickens were creating the “heartfelt goodwill” that morphed Christmas into a more secular holiday based on goodwill, family and jollity. (Wikipedia has details.) For billions across the globe, Christmas today includes cookies, gift giving, shared feasts, cherished stories and songs and festive decorations.

Illustration of manger scene with light from above shining on baby Jesus

Photo by Travis, courtesy of Flickr


Christians believe the birth of Jesus to Mary fulfills an ancient Messianic prophesy. Two canonical gospels record Jesus as having been born to Mary and her husband, Joseph, in the city of Bethlehem. Tradition tells that the birth took place in a stable, because “there was no room for them in the inn.” Nearby shepherds, told of the birth by angels, came to see the baby; magi came later, bearing gifts for the baby Jesus. (Find answers for Orthodox Christian questions at the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America; access Catholic answers at American Catholic.) The Star of Bethlehem is believed to have led the magi to Jesus, and the visit of the magi is celebrated as Epiphany, on January 6.


The Christmas pudding cooked on Stir-up Sunday is still traditionally served in some countries, but for others, Christmas today is more about cookies and peppermint sweets than old-fashioned fruitcakes and puddings. Interested to learn more?

From Martha Stewart, try baking something beautiful.

From Rachael Ray or Food Network, find an array of professional recipes.

From AllRecipes, gather favored suggestions for dinner, breakfast and dessert.

From Food & Wine, cook up something fancy or unique.


th Bill O Reilly Declares the War On Christmas Begins YouTubeFor nearly a decade, millions of Fox-TV fans have spent December spreading the story that there’s another “War on Christmas.” University of Michigan sociologist Dr. Wayne Baker explores this phenomenon in a five-part OurValues series. Stay tuned all week! He will share some fascinating stories from America’s holiday history, plus solid data from Pew about our holiday habits. PART 1—Do you believe there is a “War on Christmas”?

Noted celebrities are talking about religion this Christmas, from Mark Wahlberg’s recent discussions on ABC’s Live with Kelly and Michael to Angelina Jolie and Donny Osmond’s slated appearances on the BBC’s Good Morning Christmas religious programming.

The world’s largest Christmas tree was lit via a tablet—and by the Pope—this year, miles from the site of the display of lights. Pope Francis lit the tree that currently holds residence in the medieval Italian town of Gubbio.

Spend time “in silence” this Christmas, Pope Francis advised earlier this month, to make oneself available to God. Pope Francis suggested leaving internal space “for the beauty of God, the source of true joy.”

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Categories: Christian

Centennial of The WWI Christmas Truce in 1914

Sainsburys advertisement on centennial of the WWI Christmas Truce

A SCENE FROM THE SAINSBURY’S ADVERTISEMENT: The short film has drawn both praise and condemnation as it recalls the famous World War I Christmas Truce.

WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 24: For the best overview of this centennial—recalling a moment 100 years ago when a longing for peace briefly overcame the bitterness of war—read Daniel Buttry’s article (with videos) in our Interfaith Peacemakers section. This column by Buttry is part of a larger series of inspiring stories about WWI peacemakers that Buttry has been collecting in Interfaith Peacemakers.

In this Holidays section of our online magazine, we also are reporting on some fascinating news about this centennial …


Faith and film columnist Edward McNulty, the editor of the Visual Parables Journal, is so impressed with the main feature film about the Christmas Truce, called Joyeux Noel (or Merry Christmas), that he published a complete study guide to that 2005 film. Visual Parables also recommends other feature films about the First World War, including: The Big Parade (1925), Gallipoli (1981), In Love and War (1996),  A Very Long Engagement (2004), Flyboys (2006) and War Horse (2011).


The venerable British supermarket chain Sainsbury’s produced one of the most popular videos circling the globe at the centennial of the Christmas Truce. The video debuted in November and, according to one news story in the Guardian newspaper, “While some have questioned the tastefulness of using war to sell food and drink, Sainbury’s has smartly agreed to donate all profits made from the sale of a £1 chocolate bar that features in the advert to the Royal British Legion,” the major British nonprofit raising funds for veterans.

However, Guardian columnist Charlie Booker writes that he is offended by the ad campaign. “Millions of young men were slaughtered during the First World War … and doubtless as they lay dying in foreign fields, gazing down at what remained of their mud-caked, punctured, broken bodies, gasping their final agonized breaths, it would have been a great source of comfort for them to know their noble sacrifice would still be honoured a century later, in an advert for a shop.”

From the BBC to other major British newspapers, verdicts on the advertisement range from calling it “a moving memorial based on lots of historical research and austere production values” to deriding it as “dangerous and disrespectful.”

On the American side of the Atlantic, AdWeek praises the effort: “The film really is stunning—it’s as cinematic as any war movie, rich and evocative and entirely believable.”

A CBS News report generally praised the effort as part of a helpful mythology about the Christmas Truce. Among other things, CBS questioned whether a German-British soccer game was played during the truce. No one, it seems, can find an original account of such a game.

A Wall Street Journal essay says that this advertisement might encourage more public interest in the untold stories of peacemakers. The WSJ concludes that, as a story, the Christmas Truce’s “familiarity and fame … should not lead us to ignore less dramatic instances of cooperation and trust-building across battle lines during World War I. Indeed, these more modest episodes may be the key to understanding how, in our own day, we might work to lessen political violence and hostility, even among the most bitter enemies.”

Watch the Sainsbury’s film below. NOTE that, when the video ends, you will see links to 2 more short videos about the production of this advertisement.




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Categories: Uncategorized

200th anniversary of the treaty ending War of 1812

The American-flag-on-the-Moon-from-United-America-galleryWEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 24, 2014: Two hundred years ago, with the strokes of pens in the Flemish city of Ghent, diplomats from the United States and the United Kingdom ended the War of 1812. However, don’t be surprised if this Christmas Eve bicentennial is all but forgotten in America—for several reasons. Not only does the anniversary fall at a time when most Americans are focused on Christmas—but the war itself dragged on for months after the Treaty of Ghent.

Plus, the biggest anniversary related to the War of 1812 already has come and gone—the bicentennial of our national anthem, The Star Spangled Banner. Dr. Wayne Baker’s OurValues series reported extensively on that anniversary, first, with this look at the importance of “symbolic patriotism” in America and then later with a five-part series about the song’s bicentennial celebration.

How did the war actually end? It was messy in an era of far-flung global conflict and methods of communication that crawled at a snail’s pace.

The entire Battle of New Orleans, which made General Andrew Jackson a national hero and propelled him into the White House, took place in early January 1815. Later, on February 16, 1815, the U.S. Senate unanimously ratified the treaty signed in Ghent.

If you live near New Orleans, a huge January 8-to-10 public commemoration of that battle will unfold, according to the Times-Picayune. Of course, other parts of the U.S. have their own claims on Jackson, and the Hermitage in Tennessee has a special exhibit related to the War of 1812.

The last US-UK battle was the capture of the HMS Penguin in March, 1815—and, in May 1815, an Indian force that had allied itself with the British fought the Battle of the Sink Hole with U.S. forces. That’s the last conflict historians list in the War of 1812.

Care to read more?

ReadTheSpirit magazine reports regularly on issues of war and peace. Over the past year, we have published many stories about Abraham Lincoln and the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. Our writers also have reported extensively on inspiring memories from the First World War, which unfolded 100 years ago.  You’ll find stories about peacemakers grappling with the tragedy of WWI in our Interfaith Peacemakers department.


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Categories: Anniversary

Yule: Embrace midwinter and solstice during year’s longest night

Plate with Yule log and cookies in shapes of acorns, leaves and woodland animals, lit pine tree in backgroung

A cake Yule log is accompanied by cookies reflecting nature’s gifts. Photo in public domain

SUNDAY, DECEMBER 21: The pale winter sun’s waning rays give way to the longest night of the year, on winter solstice—known also as Yule, or midwinter. One of the oldest celebrations of winter, Yule conjures visions of steaming cinnamon wassail, a crackling fireplace and the serenity of a blanket of snow. Despite the darkness and bitter cold, Yule is a time of joy: while enjoying the tranquility of midwinter, Pagans, Wiccans and many world citizens welcome the reemerging sun. Winter solstice marks a turning point when days begin, once again, to lengthen, and nights to shorten.


From the earliest centuries, Germanic peoples observed an indigenous midwinter festival; in ancient Rome, Saturnalia was held on the winter solstice, and evergreen décor, gifts and feasts accompanied the festival. (Wikipedia has details.) In pagan tradition, the Great Mother gave birth to the new Sun King on winter solstice—a belief still held by Pagans today—and as centuries progressed, outdoor bonfires were moved indoors to a hearth with a Yule log. (Note that in some regions, Yule bonfires are still held outdoors.)

In the hearth, a large oak log ceremoniously placed is kindled at dusk, being allowed to burn for many hours or several days—tradition varies. In Druid custom, mistletoe is cut from an oak tree. Decorated Yule candles help welcome such beloved traditions as wassail, toasts and caroling. (No fireplace in your home? No problem. Time Warner Cable is offering, through Jan. 2, the Holiday Yule Log, to light up television screens with a crackling fire.)

Today, Pagans and Wiccans still celebrate with wassail, feasts and, sometimes, a Yule log. Among some sects, Yule lasts 12 days from winter solstice. In some Scandinavian countries, this season is known as Jul.


The spicy aroma of cinnamon wassail will warm any kitchen!

Find abundant wassail and Yule log recipes at Food Network, Martha Stewart and

Feast dishes like Shortest Day Ham Loaf, Brighter Day Cheese Ball, Solstice Surprise Salad and Roasted Lamb Feast for a (Sun) King are at

Instructions for a Yule ritual with candles and blessings is available at this UK site.

Interested in Yule songs? How about a Yule altar? Get an altar how-to, learn Yule songs for kids, access a Yule playlist, find suggestions of things to hang on a Pagan tree and more at


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Categories: International ObservancesWiccan / Pagan

Hanukkah: Celebrating light and freedom

A Mother and Daughter light Hanukkah candles

Mother and daughter light Hanukkah candles. (Photo by Trinitro Tolueno, who allows public use via Wikimedia Commons.)

SUNSET, TUESDAY DECEMBER 16—What’s the most common experience when families gather for annual holidays like Hanukkah?

We remember.

The 8-day Jewish festival of Hanukkah is not like Christmas, so far-flung Jewish relatives don’t rush home for these holidays as Christian families migrate for Christmas day. However, the whole point of lighting the Hanukkah candles, each night, is to remember connections stretching back thousands of years. Often, parents and their children enjoy the ritual together to establish this tradition for future generations.

So, this year for Hanukkah, ReadTheSpirit online magazine also is remembering. After more than seven years and more than 5,000 columns, we have published some truly bright Hanukkah “lights.” Enjoy …


Cover This Jewish Life book cover by Debra Darvick

CLICK this cover to find out more about Debra Darvick’s book.

In her inspiring book, This Jewish Life, Debra Darvick writes dozens of true stories about Jewish men and women experiencing the seasons in Judaism. In one section of her book, she explains the basics about Hanukkah’s commemoration of “the Jewish victory over Syrian emperor Antiochus and his army. In 167 BC, Antiochus decreed the practice of Judaism to be an offense punishable by death. The Temple was desecrated, and the Syrians went so far as to sacrifice pigs in the Temple. A Jew named Mattathias and his five sons began a revolt not only against Antiochus, but against the Jews who were quite willing to take on the ways of the majority population and jettison Jewish practice. Three years later, the Maccabees, as the Jewish fighters were known, and their followers, were victorious and the Temple was once again in Jewish hands.”

She explains that “according to Jewish tradition, when the Temple was finally cleansed for re-dedication, there was but a single day’s supply of ritually pure oil for the ner tamid, the everlasting light that hangs in every synagogue as a symbol of God’s ever-presence. Miraculously, the oil lasted for eight days, the time needed to press and ritually purify additional oil for the ner tamid.”

How is the holiday marked in Jewish homes today? “The cornerstone … is the lighting of the menorah, an eight-branched candelabra. There is a place for a ninth candle on every menorah for the shamash, the ‘helper candle’ used to light the other eight. Each night, an additional candle is lit.”

Debra warns readers that this “is not the time of year to start a diet, for the two foods most associated with the holiday are latkes, potato pancakes, and sufganiot, Israeli for jelly donuts, both of which are fried in veritable lakes of oil.” Oh, and if that’s not a high enough calorie count—there’s also the “gelt, chocolate coins wrapped in gold foil.”


We’re stretching back to 2009 to recommend this column by Debra, headlined “Remembering the Pure Light of Our Traditions.”

DearDebra logo imageIn addition to her occasional pieces in ReadTheSpirit, Debra writes another intriguing column “Dear Debra” for The Jewish News. A Dear Abby fan since childhood, Debra often fantasized about having her own advice column. Her dream came true when the Detroit Jewish News chose her to write a new advice column. She has weighed in on matters large and small from tattoos and tardy friends to helicopter parenting and runaway guest lists, always drawing on her her trademark sechel—a terrific Yiddish word encompassing common sense, street smarts, and wisdom. You don’t have to be Jewish to have tsuris (problems and heartache), and you certainly don’t have to be Jewish to send Debra a problem. Check out Debra’s columns and, if you have your own tsuris, write her at or submit your problem using the form accompanying her column.


latkes and a fork by-Olga-MassovEvery week, Bobbie Lewis brings readers a new story about the way food connects with faith and family traditions in her popular column FeedTheSpirit.

For Hanukkah (or “Chanukah” as Bobbie spells it), she invited writer Sheri Schiff to share her delightful story about latkes. You’ll love this story: One year, Sheri dreamed up a solution to making latkes without leaving a heavy aroma in her home—and her clever idea wound up feeding friends and neighbors! Now, her front-porch latkes are a beloved neighborhood tradition. And, yes, Sheri shares a yummy latke recipe with readers.

FlavorsOfFaith book coverOUR MOST POPULAR FAITH-AND-FOOD BOOK—Whatever your faith, whatever your family traditions may be, Lynne Meredith Golodner’s book makes a terrific holiday gift: The Flavors of Faith—Holy Breads.

A veteran food writer, Lynne invites you to circle the globe, then step into your kitchen to make breads from sacred Native American, Jewish, Christian and Muslim traditions. Holy Breads is the first book in a new series, The Flavors of Faith, which will inspire and nourish readers with real-life stories and cross-cultural food traditions.


At ReadTheSpirit, we are pleased to end 2014 with the promise of a new book by the popular stand-up comic and author “Bob Alper,” aka Rabbi Robert Alper (America’s only practicing rabbi who also works full-time as a standup comic). Stay tuned for an announcement in early 2015.

Thanks I Needed That Bob Alper book coverIf you haven’t already purchased his earlier book—Thanks. I Needed That—then now is a perfect opportunity. In fact, we will close this Hanukkah column by urging you to read a holiday sample-chapter from that book, called Mrs. Steinberg’s Christmas Tree.

Here’s a sample of that chapter … “For Jewish kids, especially Jewish kids like me in the early 1950s, December was a tough month, our feeble little holiday contrasting flimsily against our Christian friends’ major joyfest. I even have a vague memory of making a modified advent wreath of paper rings in one public school classroom. Every day for several weeks, each of us pulled off one paper ring, watching the object grow smaller and smaller, until, at the very end, it would be CHRISTMAS! Hooray!! (Oh, except for you, Bobby.)”

Go on, read the entire true story!

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Categories: JewishUncategorized