Purim: Jews masquerade, parade and feast in honor of Esther

A group of girls in matching purple skirts and costumes walks down an open road

Girls participate in a Purim procession in Israel. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

SUNSET SATURDAY, MARCH 11: Happy Purim!

Purim may be a relatively minor holiday in the Jewish year, but there’s no question: It’s fun!

Jews end the Fast of Esther tonight and feast, masquerade and drink for the joyous festival, recalling Queen Esther and the victory she managed to pull off for the Jewish people in the face of the Persian Empire’s crushing power. Because they were saved from destruction and won over their foes, Jews celebrate gaily and throw parties for adults and children alike. The masks and costumes associated with Mardi Gras are echoed in Purim’s customs as celebrants dress up to symbolize God’s “hidden presence” in the events of the Book of Esther.

Triangle-shaped pastries, filled with jam, on white plate with red cloth beneath

Haman’s pockets, a traditional treat made for Purim. Photo by ulterior epicure, courtesy of Flickr

‘BLOTTING OUT’ HAMAN: STOMPS, NOISEMAKERS & POCKET TREATS

Purim day begins with a reading of the Book of Esther, which is often done publicly in the synagogue. As the evil Haman’s name is read—which occurs 54 times—Jews stomp their feet and rattle noisemakers, to “blot out” his name. Some Jews even write Haman’s name on the bottom of their shoes, so as to literally stomp on his name!

Following services, the faithful share food with one another and partake in a feast. One particular food exchanged on Purim is Hamantaschen, “Haman’s pockets,” which consists of sweet pastry filled with prunes or poppy seeds. In the jovial nature of Purim, adults are required to drink until many can’t tell the difference between “cursed by Haman” and “blessed be Mordecai.”

Traditional Purim costumes reflect the various roles in the story of Esther. However, as Jewish organizations continue to make merry on this ancient holiday, new ideas arise—including cultural themes that tie Purim with the 21st century: themes like Harry Potter, “Star Wars” and Marvel superheroes have gained popularity in recent years.

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Categories: Jewish

Fat Tuesday and Ash Wednesday: Christians prepare for, begin Lenten season

Mardi Gras mask sitting in pile of colorful paper ribbons

Photo by annca, courtesy of Pixabay

TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 28 and WEDNESDAY, MARCH 1: Haul out the eggs, sugar and cream, and let yourself indulge—it’s Fat Tuesday! During the last 24 hours before the start of Western Christian Lent, recipes vary by country: English families fry up pancakes, Polish and Lithuanian homes serve donuts and Swedes and Finns cook up semla pastries—but all reflect the old Christian tradition of using up the rich foods in one’s home before starting the fasting season of Lent. Then, following Fat Tuesday, more than a billion Western Christians begin fasting for the start of the season of Lent. From solemn church services to a nationwide movement nicknamed “Ashes to Go,” adherents observe Ash Wednesday in solemnity.

Did you know? Originally, Fat Tuesday (or Mardi Gras, in French) was known as “Shrove Tuesday,” which derived from shrive, meaning “to confess.” 

MARDI GRAS: CARNE LEVARE VS. CARNIVAL

The popular Carnival associated with Mardi Gras, primarily celebrated in Portuguese-, Spanish- and Italian-speaking countries, derives from carne levare, meaning “to take away flesh/meat.” Street processions abound in Brazil and Venice for Carnival, while a customary eating of salted meat takes a literal meaning to the day in Iceland.

Pile of rounded donuts covered in powdered sugar

A variety of sweet breads, ranging from paczkis to pancakes to pastries, is traditionally baked for Fat Tuesday. Photo by freestocks.org, courtesy of Flickr

PANCAKES & RACES: Gorging on paczkis (pronounced pounch-keys) may be customary in the United States, but the custom of eating pancakes in the United Kingdom takes place on such a massive scale that the tradition has all but been renamed “Pancake Day.” The most famous pancake race has been held annually since 1445 in Olney at Buckinghamshire. Legend has it that a housewife was once so busy making pancakes that she lost track of the time until she heard the church bells ringing for service, and she raced out of the house while still carrying her pan with pancakes. Today in Olney, contestants of the pancake race must carry a frying pan and toss pancakes along the race course; all participants are required to wear an apron and scarf. A church service always follows the races.

MARDI GRAS and CARNIVAL 2017: Parades and festivities start gearing up days before Fat Tuesday, and Mardi Gras New Orleans offers an in-depth look at the rich history behind this American party (along with parade routes, photos, a countdown and much more). Carnival in Venice—a more formal, period-era celebration than the parties in Rio and New Orleans—is thought to have been started in 1162, and today draws approximately 3 million visitors to Venice annually. (View a slideshow of Venetian festivities, here.) Staying home on Mardi Gras? Check out recipes for everything from jambalaya and crab cakes to king cake at Taste of Home and Southern Living.

ASH WEDNESDAY (& CLEAN MONDAY)

In the Western church, Ash Wednesday is a day of repentance and prayer. In some churches, palm branches from the previous year’s Palm Sunday are blessed and burned into ashes, although many churches conducting these services now purchase the ashes from religious-supply companies. During a liturgy marking the day, a church leader swipes the ashes into the shape of a cross on the recipient’s forehead. Rather than wash the ashes, recipients are supposed to let the ashes wear off throughout the remainder of the day as part of their spiritual reflections.

The Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke detail the story of Jesus spending 40 days fasting in the desert, where he is repeatedly tempted by Satan. Lent similarly marks 40 days—not counting Sundays.

CLEAN MONDAY: Eastern Orthodox Christians will start Great Lent the same week as Western Christians, this year, and in 2017, February 27 is Clean Monday—the start of the fasting period for Eastern Christians that prohibits meat, dairy and various other foods. Clean Monday—a public holiday in Greece—is commemorated with outdoor picnics, kite flying and shared family meals. (Find a recipe for Lagana Bread, a traditional Greek Clean Monday favorite, here.)

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Categories: Christian

Maha Shivaratri: Hindus honor marriage, linga of Lord Shiva

Young man and older man walking and holding hands while holding colorful Hindu decorations

Hindu devotees carry decorations on an annual pilgrimage to a Maha Shivaratri festival. Photo by ILRI, courtesy of Flickr

FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 24: A day of fasting and worship is followed by a nighttime vigil for Lord Shiva, on the Hindu holiday of Maha Shivaratri. Lord Shiva is associated with several legends and renowned as the model of an ideal husband. On Maha Shivaratri, many Hindus believe that Lord Shiva performed the Tandava—the cosmic dance of creation, preservation and destruction.

After a full day of visiting temples, performing ritual baths for figures of Lord Shiva and fasting, Hindus begin a vigil that lasts the entire night.

LORD SHIVA: MARRIAGE AND LINGA

Many stories are shared as this holiday is celebrated by Hindus in India, Nepal, Trinidad, Tobago and other parts of the world. According to one legend, Lord Shiva and his consort, Parvati, were married on this day. As the marriage of Lord Shiva and Parvatai is regarded as ideal, married women pray for the well being of their husbands and single women pray that they will find a husband like Shiva.

In another traditional story, Lord Shiva manifested in the form of a Linga on Maha Shivaratri, and thus the day is regarded as extremely auspicious.

In the news: Rhode Island’s first Hindu temple—acquired in building last October—will be home to Maha Shivaratri celebrations this year. Read the story here.

RITUALS AND CUSTOMS

After waking early for a ritual bath, Hindus begin the day by visiting the temple. At the temple, Hindus pray, make offerings and bathe figures of Shiva in milk, honey or water. Many devotees either fast or partake in only milk and fruit throughout the day. As evening falls, the worship continues, and hymns and devotional songs are sung to Shiva throughout the night. It’s believed that sincere worship of Lord Shiva on Maha Shivaratri—Lord Shiva’s favorite day—will bring absolution of sins, neutrality of the mind and assistance in liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth.

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Categories: Hindu

Meatfare Sunday, Cheesefare Sunday: Orthodox Christians prepare for Lent

Bowl of wings and dairy dip on wooden table

Orthodox Christians consume meat and dairy for the last time on the final two Sundays before Great Lent, and will not resume consumption until after Pascha (Easter). Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 19 and SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 26: Lent is approaching fast for the world’s 2 billion Christians, and on February 19, Eastern Orthodox churches take initial steps toward their traditional Lenten fast with Meatfare Sunday. After Meatfare Sunday, no meat may be consumed until Pascha (Easter); in one week, Cheesefare Sunday will discontinue the partaking of dairy products until Pascha. For Orthodox Christians, Great Lent begins on Clean Monday—this year, on February 27.

MEATFARE SUNDAY (AND THE LAST JUDGMENT )

Though commonly referred to as Meatfare Sunday, this day is more formally known as the Sunday of the Last Judgment. In services, emphasis is placed on the Second Coming and Last Judgment—a time when Christ, in Matthew, refers to coming in glory with the angels to judge the living and the dead. While the opportunity exists, the faithful are encouraged to repent. The parable of the Last Judgment points out that Christ will judge on love: How well one has shared God’s love, and how deeply one has cared for others.

Looking to cook up a mouthwatering meat dish (or two) today?  Find recipes at Allrecipes, Southern Living and Food Network.

CHEESEFARE SUNDAY (AND FORGIVENESS)

Great Lent commences for Eastern Christians on the day following Cheesefare Sunday, on Clean Monday—but the faithful already are cleaning their slates (and their plates) today, by asking forgiveness and eliminating dairy from their diets until Pascha. In the Orthodox church, this year, February 26 is Forgiveness Sunday (also known as Cheesefare Sunday).

On the search for a few tasty dairy recipes? Find recipes for all courses from Eating Well, Food Network and Dairy Goodness, a recipe collection from the Dairy Farmers of Canada.

Meat hasn’t been consumed since last Sunday, on Meatfare sunday, but dairy products will be consumed for the final time today. Throughout Great Lent and until Pascha (Easter), Eastern Christians will observe these fasting customs with only occasional exemptions for oil and wine—but never meat or dairy.

Starting tonight, the Vespers of Forgiveness will signal the first liturgy of Great Lent; the service will end when attendees ask forgiveness from both fellow congregation members and the priest. If you have Orthodox friends and colleagues, this is a moving liturgy to attend, as the process of forgiveness often is deeply personal for the faithful.

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Categories: Christian

Valentine’s Day: Recall an ancient martyr and embrace the diverse looks of love

Heart of chocolates, surrounded by rose petals and a feather

Photo by Kumar’s Edit, courtesy of Flickr

TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 14: Happy Valentine’s Day!

Or, you might say: “That’s amore!” in Italian tribute to the ancient Roman-Christian martyr known as St. Valentine.

This annual commemoration of feelings from the heart has spread across the globe in a massive exchange of cards, candy, chocolates and even jewelry—all in the name of love. In Ancient Rome, mid-January to mid-February was celebrated as a dedication to the love between Zeus and Hera, and Feb. 13-15 was a fertility festival. The Christian St. Valentines came into the picture just a few hundred years after Jesus Christ, although none were particularly associated with love; it was a poem by Geoffrey Chaucer that first began the association between St. Valentine’s Day and romance.

Heart candies and treats on a plate with pink and white stripes

Photo courtesy of Pixabay

EXPRESSING LOVE: THEN AND NOW

Today’s holiday traditions began a little more than 200 years ago, with “The Young Man’s Valentine Writer”—a publication of suggested poems for young men to give to their romantic interests. Technology advanced, and Valentine cards were soon being exchanged by thousands. Today, an estimated 190 million valentines are exchanged annually in the U.S. alone. An estimated 1 billion cards are exchanged on Valentine’s Day each year in the U.S., and Americans account for $20 billion of the $50 billion worldwide chocolate industry, according to trade publications. Of course, new media is also reshaping Valentine’s Day; last year, 15 million e-Valentines were sent via Internet connections.

Valentine’s Day is, today, a national observance in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the UK, France, Australia, Denmark, Italy and Japan.

ST. VALENTINE: THE MAN AND THE LEGEND

The history of the saint behind this holiday is mysterious, indeed, and parts of the story are more legend than documented fact. For that reason, in 1969, the Vatican removed St. Valentine from the “General Roman Calendar,” the official registry of saints and their feast days. However, this saint is so beloved that Catholics are free to observe feast days locally and regionally—and millions do so every year.

St. Valentine on a vintage Valentine's Day greeting

A vintage Valentine’s greeting featuring a rendition of St. Valentine. Photo by Joe Haupt, courtesy of Flickr

The problem is that “Valentine” was a popular name in the 3rd Century—and for many years after that. At least two, and most likely several, Valentines were very early Christian martyrs. By the 6th Century, Christian leaders were blending their stories into a single heroic tale. Sorting out those records got even more complicated when a dozen more Valentines eventually were regarded as saints—piling up through the centuries in various corners of the Christian church.

Usually, Valentine is described as a courageous and brilliant defender of Christianity, as a compassionate man who tried to help men and women who were endangered during the period of Roman persecution—and as a priest who performed Christian marriages, including weddings for Roman soldiers and their wives at a time when that practice was illegal. According to legend, Valentine was such a striking figure that Roman Emperor Claudius II personally interrogated him, a practice that would have been quite rare in the Roman court. As the story goes, Valentine refused to recant his faith; the emperor refused to budge; Valentine performed a couple of final miracles (including healing his jailer’s daughter)—and Valentine was killed on February 14.

Looking for a Christian twist on Valentine’s greetings? Get inspiration for a DIY card from Solomon’s Canticle of Canticles, a book that uses marital love as a metaphor for God’s love for the Church.

2017 NEWS, RECIPES & DIY GIFT IDEAS

Gifts may be a nice gesture, but Valentine’s Day doesn’t have to cost a fortune—especially with this year’s tips from Reader’s Digest. For DIY gift ideas, look to Martha Stewart, DIY Network and Real Simple.

Traveling for Valentine’s Day? Wandering lovers can score deals with tips from the New York Times.

Spending the night in? Find an assortment of romantic recipes at Food Network and Food & Wine.

LUSH Cosmetics is making headlines with its 2017 LGBTQ Valentine’s Day campaign, which has been dubbed “adorable.”

Gifting a box subscription this Valentine’s Day?  Parade reviews the best Valentine’s Day box subscription services.

Cheesecake and chocolate are two indulgent flavors that will be combined with the release of cheeseake M&Ms, for this year’s holiday of love.

Looking for this year’s love-inspired beauty trends? People.com tracks the most popular beauty trends for Valentine’s Day 2017.

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Categories: International ObservancesNational Observances

Tu B’Shevat: Honor sustainable agriculture and trees for Jewish New Year

Grove of trees from above

Fruit trees in Israel. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

SUNSET FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 10: It’s a New Year for Trees!

Tu Bishvat, the Jewish New Year for Trees, falls on the 15th day of the month of Shevat. This year, it begins on Friday evening, February 10. An ancient commemoration of the start of the agricultural year, Tu B’Shevat is one of four annual Jewish New Years.

Why record the age of trees? In centuries past, farmers would mark the age of their trees in order to calculate their eligibility for fruit harvest and tithing. According to Leviticus 19:23-25, a tree’s fruit may only be eaten after its fifth year: in the first three years the fruit is forbidden, and in the fourth year, the fruit must be set apart for God. When the State of Israel was reestablished, in 1948, interest in the ancient festival surged. Jewish people were farmers, once again, and the fruits of the land of Israel were celebrated.

THE TU B’SHEVAT SEDER

Today, the TuBishvat seder is observed in many Jewish households and synagogues. Many partake in the fruits and nuts of Israel, while reflecting on the need for sustainable agriculture. It is recognized that man depends upon the fruits of agriculture.

Did you know? Tu Bishvat is also called “Rosh HaShanah La’Ilanot.”

In recent years, the Tu Bishvat seder has become a popular custom, and many synagogues hold one; it’s an opportunity to eat fruits, nuts and other produce of Israel; to consider the miraculous process by which we sustain our own lives by eating agricultural products; and to explore our responsibility to sustainable agriculture and the planet that feeds us.

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Categories: Jewish

Groundhog Day, Candlemas and Imbolc: Feasts, festivals anticipate spring

Men in black cloaks, suits and hats, one holding a groundhog, gathering to look at a small paper scroll

Punxsutawney Phil and other Groundhog Day participants at Gobbler’s Knob, in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. Photo by Anthony Quintano, courtesy of Flickr

WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 1 and THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 2: Today’s Groundhog Day may have evolved from the ancient pagan festival of Imbolc, but woodland creatures and coming-of-spring myths have little to do with the Christian feast that falls one day later: It’s the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple, known better as Candlemas.

No matter which holiday you’re celebrating, though, do so with the unifying themes for these first two days of February: renewal and hope. The first days of February bring new beginnings, and the Gaelic festival of Imbolc marks the start of spring. (And, this year, you can even raise a glass to Groundhog Day! That’s right—Punxsutawney Phil, the “official” groundhog of Groundhog Day, now has his own namesake “Philsner”—er, pilsner.)

CANDLEMAS: CANDLES, COINS AND BELLS

The feast of Candlemas focuses on the Gospel of Luke, which describes Mary and Joseph taking the baby Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem, 40 days after his birth. According to the gospel, Mary, Joseph and Jesus met a man named Simeon while at the Temple, who recognized Jesus as the Messiah and as the fulfillment of a prophesy. A woman at the Temple, Anna, offered similar praise for Jesus. However, Simeon warned that Mary’s heart would someday be “pierced with a sword,” as the future held tragic events for her young son.

Ice cream and chocolate drizzle on top of a crepe

Crepes are common fare across Europe for Candlemas, and the dairy products that often top them are symbolic foods for Imbolc. Photo courtesy of Pixabay

The Feast of the Presentation ranks as one of the oldest feasts in the church, with records of sermons dating back to the 4th century. Aside from the blessing of candles—and the widespread and abundant use of candles, too—Candlemas brings an array of delicious foods and vibrant customs! In countries across Europe, sweet and savory crepes are made; in Mexico, piles of tamales are served, often at a party thrown by the person who found the baby Jesus trinket in an Epiphany King Cake. French tradition has it that successfully flipping a coin while making pancakes will surely bring good luck, and Candlemas Bells—early-blooming white flowers, also known as Snowdrops—are believed to purify any home they are brought into today. (Just don’t bring those Snowdrops inside before the feast of Candlemas, because that’s considered bad luck!)

IMBOLC: SPRING, WOODLAND ANIMALS AND BRIGHID

On February 1, Wiccans and Pagans in the Northern Hemisphere usher in February with the centuries-old Gaelic festival of Imbolc, or Brighid’s Day, marking the beginning of spring and the halfway point between the winter solstice and spring equinox. (Note: In the Southern Hemisphere, Lughnassadh is celebrated.) Corn dollies, fashioned like Brighid, are made by young Pagans, while adults twist Brighid crosses. (Get a step-by-step, DIY version of Brighid crosses here.) After dark, candles are lit to welcome the rebirth of the sun.

Did you know? The Irish Imbolc translates from the Old Irish imbolg, or “in the belly”—a tribute to the early spring pregnancies of ewes. As lactation begins, an array of dairy foods eaten on this day symbolizes new beginnings.

Legend has it that on Imbolc, Brighid begins preparing for the renewal of spring. Snakes and badgers begin emerging from the earth to “test the weather” (thus, the beginning of modern Groundhog Day traditions.) In Wicca, Imbolc is a women’s festival, in honor of Brighid.

GROUNDHOG DAY: SEASONAL PREDICTIONS AND GOOD OL’ PHIL

On February 2, many of us ask: Will the groundhog see his shadow?

What started as an ancient pagan festival’s legends on woodland animals “testing the weather” has slowly morphed into a national phenomenon in the United States. Groundhog Day, spurred by German immigrants of the 18th and 19th centuries who brought groundhog traditions with them to America, gave birth to “Punxsutawney Phil” and the array of groundhog-related events that fill lodges and streets in Pennsylvania in the first days of February each year. Annually, tens of thousands of visitors flock to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania for Groundhog Day, where “Phil” is regarded as the “one and only” weather predictor for the day. In 2017, Phil will even be the namesake of a beer bottled in his honor: Punxsutawney Philsner, which is, according to handlers, already proving wildly successful. (Read more here.)

Getting it straight: Tradition tells that if a groundhog sees his shadow in sunlight, he will retreat back to his burrow, indicating six more weeks of winter; if he sees no shadow, he will emerge, and an early spring is in the forecast.

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Categories: ChristianNational ObservancesWiccan / Pagan