Celebrate light and freedom at Hanukkah

Hand lighting second candle on Hanukkah menorah

Lighting candles on a Hanukkah menorah. Photo courtesy of Flickr

SUNDAY, DECEMBER 6: Tonight—and for a total of 8 nights—it’s Hanukkah. Jewish families light candles, fry up latkes and many children try their luck at a game played with a four-sided top known as a dreidel. Though not as religiously significant as other Jewish holidays, such as Passover and Yom Kippur, Hanukkah is widely celebrated, and is easily recognized even by non-Jews.

Several inspiring themes are part of this festival, including the power of light itself at this ever-darker time of year in the Northern Hemisphere. Another major theme of Hanukkah is religious freedom. As the traditional story is retold in most Jewish families, a wicked ruler more than 2,000 years ago was determined to force Jews to leave their ancient traditions behind in favor of practices drawn from Greek culture. Instead, a rebel force known as the Maccabees heroically defeated these rulers and restored the traditional rituals in the Jerusalem temple.

Did you know? The Maccabeats, an all-male a cappella group based out of Yeshiva University, is popularly known for its 2010 Hanukkah song, “Candlelight” (access the music video here).

Most Jewish families also retell a story about the small amount of sacred oil that was left in the rededicated temple—a tiny amount of oil that nevertheless managed to keep the temple’s light going for eight days.

That’s why Hanukkah food traditions involve oil, to this day—especially potato pancakes better known as latkes.


latkes and a fork by-Olga-MassovWANT TO TRY LATKES? FeedTheSpirit columnist Bobbie Lewis serves up a guest column about making these tasty potato pancakes.



Hanukkah is faithfully observed by most Jews with the lighting of candles in a nine-branched menorah with one candle for each of the eight nights and one extra candle (the shamash), which is often placed separately from the others. The shamash must be used for “practical” purposes, so that the remaining candles may be used solely for publicizing the miracle of the oil. Some families substitute small oil lamps for candles.


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.”

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.”




Comments: (0)
Categories: Jewish

St. Nicholas Day: Learn the history and legends of the ‘real’ Santa Claus

Man with red bishop's hat and white beard waves with white gloved hand

Sinterklaas arrives in the Netherlands. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

SUNDAY, DECEMBER 6: The white-bearded man in the red suit may travel by reindeer in the West, but today, Sinterklaas, or San Nicola, arrives across Europe on horseback—for St. Nicholas Day. For European children, St. Nicholas Day brings hope of sweets, small toys and surprises, as the fourth-century saint makes his rounds with Zwarte Piet (Black Peter). For Christian families, the excitement and gifts of St. Nicholas Day can better prepare children for focus on the Nativity on Christmas Day.

Advent season: For more than a billion Western Christians, Advent begins before St. Nicholas day. (The first Advent Sunday is November 29 in 2015.)

Nativity Fast: For Eastern Orthodox Christians, the 40-day fasting period known as Nativity Fast lasts through December 24.


The historical St. Nicholas was born in the 3rd century in modern-day Turkey. When orphaned at a young age, Nicholas followed the words of Jesus and sold his inheritance, giving the profits to the poor. (Learn more from St. Nicholas Center.) The generous young man devoted his life to God and was soon made bishop of Myra, where his reputation for compassion continued. Despite imprisonment and persecution during the reign of Roman Emperor Diocletian, Bishop Nicholas unwaveringly continued his servitude toward others .

Stories of his works and deeds spread throughout the land, and some of those stories are still told on St. Nicholas Day today. In 343 CE, St. Nicholas died in Myra. A relic, known as manna, formed on his grave, and the substance was believed to have healing properties.


In the many countries that observe St. Nicholas Day—the Netherlands, France, Germany, Italy, Austria, Bulgaria and more—the day is met with special baked goods, processions and reenactments of wonderful stories from the life of St. Nicholas. In Germany and Poland, boys dress as bishops and beg for alms for the poor; in France, the spicy smell of gingerbread cookies and mannala (a brioche shaped like the bishop) fills kitchens and bakeries. St. Nicholas is the most popular family patron saint in Serbia. Throughout Europe, children leave their shoes out on the evening of December 5, to be filled with either treats or coal by the passing St. Nicholas and his sidekick companion, Zwarte Piet.


Cookie in shape of bishop St. Nicholas

St. Nicholas cookies are popular across Europe. Photo by Turku Gingerbread, courtesy of Flickr

This year, the nonprofit St. Nicholas Center has expanded its free printables, stories, handmade gifts and more with 49 new features: a video to introduce St. Nicholas, intended for St. Nicholas events, a handout on The Real Santa (with an Eastern image, too), and wooden ornaments from Slovakia are just a few of the features. Visitors to the site can find printable candy bar wrappers, paper bag puppets, cookies and even a religious devotional for churches—all with the intention of spreading the story of the life of the famed bishop of Myra.

Learn about the life of St. Nicholas, here. For children, check out this page.

Bake Speculaas cookies, gluten-free Speculoos and Ukrainian Christmas Honey Cookies, with recipes here.

Get creative with craft ideas and directions, here.

Access St. Nicholas Day blessings and other faith-based resources, here.

American St. Nick? A newly re-released book tells the story of World War II hero Harry Stutz, who played St. Nicholas to a war-torn town in Luxembourg. The U.S. film premiere of a documentary based on the book took place in New York in November; the European premiere, slotted for two weeks later, took place in Luxembourg. (Read the story here.)

Comments: (0)
Categories: Christian

Advent: Christians begin season of hope, anticipate birth of Christ

Wreath with greens, four lit pink canldes and one lit white candle in the middle

An Advent wreath. Photo courtesy of Mount Pleasant Granary

SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 29: Advent begins today for over a billion Western Christians, as the Church enters a new liturgical year and begins the season whose lighted wreaths and prayers anticipate the birth of Jesus. On each of the four Sundays leading to Christmas, Christians light a new candle on the Advent wreath: three purple, and one rose-colored one. The rose-colored candle is lit on the third Sunday of Advent, Gaudete (rejoice) Sunday, and in some churches, a white pillar candle in the middle of the wreath is lit in Christmas Eve. (Note: In Protestant churches, Advent candles are often red, and in Anglican and Lutheran churches, they are typically blue.) Many congregations are draped in purple or blue, symbolizing hope and repentance. During Advent, Christians look to both Christ’s ancient birth and the Second Coming.

Note: Eastern Christians began the Nativity Fast—a strict, 40-day fast leading to the Nativity—on November 15.

Advent calendars have rapidly been gaining popularity in recent years, even amongst secular Christmas celebrants: Star Wars, candy-filled and even LEGO Advent calendars are filling store shelves in 2015. Still, traditionally faithful families may fashion their own Advent wreaths of evergreens and candles. Jesse Trees, used in many churches to provide necessary items for the needy during the season, have also been steadily gaining popularity.

Interested in making a DIY Advent wreath? Find information on making a base, candle-holders, greens and more at Catholic Culture.

Blessings for the Advent wreath can be found at the website for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.


At a time when the world is at war, the Catholic Church’s leader has stated that, “God weeps.” (The Telegraph reported.) While lights, parties, trees and nativity scenes are abundant, the Pontiff regards:

It’s all a charade. The world continues to go to war. The world has not chosen a peaceful path. There are wars everywhere, and hate. We should ask for the grace to weep for this world, which does not recognize the path to peace. … War can be ‘justified’ for many reasons. But when the whole world is at war, as it is today … there is no justification.


Comments: (0)
Categories: Christian

Thanksgiving: Gather in gratitude (and pass the turkey) on America’s oldest holiday

Above table with Thanksgiving type dishes of food and multiple hands toasting glasses

Photo by Satya Murphy, courtesy of Flickr

THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 26: Clasp hands in gratitude and share a custom embedded in American history, on the national holiday of Thanksgiving. Originally a 1621 feast shared between Pilgrims and Wampanoag Native Americans, the turkey-centered meal that graces most American tables today has changed significantly since its initiation. This year, New York Times features a look at Julia Child’s impact on Thanksgiving (plus a few of her favorite recipes), and USA Today examines the turbulent relationship between Thanksgiving and Black Friday.

Keep reading, and you’ll find Thanksgiving history tidbits to share at your dinner table, tantalizing dish suggestions, activities for kids and more.

Ready? Let’s turkey!


Days for thanksgiving have an integral place in many faiths, and it was a day for gratitude that Pilgrims and Wampanoag Native Americans shared, in 1621, that became the American secular holiday known as Thanksgiving today. For the Wampanoag, giving thanks for the Creator’s gifts was a long-standing tradition; for the European Pilgrims, an abundant harvest gave more than enough reason for a celebration of gratitude. The 1621 feast lasted three days, and historic estimates point to approximately 50 Pilgrims and 90 Wampanoag Native Americans in attendance.

By the 1660s, an annual harvest festival was common in New England—a custom often proclaimed, in early years, by church leaders. Continental Congress declared the first national Thanksgiving in 1777, and years later, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving as a federal holiday. In 1941, Thanksgiving was permanently placed on the fourth Thursday of November on the American calendar.

Illustration on old postcard of boy and turkey quarreling

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons


In tradition held almost as dear as the turkey, Thanksgiving in America has become an occasion for football—after all, the National Football League has played games on Thanksgiving since its inception. Since 1924, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade has marched down the streets of New York City, and in Detroit, America’s Thanksgiving Day Parade also has a long history. Many cities across the U.S. today host a Turkey Trot on Thanksgiving morning.


From traditional sweet potatoes to a new twist on cranberries, there’s no shortage of Thanksgiving recipes—find menus to satisfy any cook from Food Network, AllRecipes, Food & Wine and ReadTheSpirit’s own FeedTheSpirit.

Feeling crafty? Adult DIY instructions for Thanksgiving décor are at HGTV, and kids can get creative while the turkey’s cooking with ideas from Disney and Parenting.

Julia Child—the national Thanksgiving commander-in-chief? Read a fascinating history of Julia Child and the American Thanksgiving, and click here for Aunt Helen’s Fluffy Pumpkin Pie, Sherry Vinegar-Glazed Onions, Spicy Dried Fruit Dessert Sauce and more tempting recipes.

‘Organic’ or ‘All Natural’? Learn how to read turkey labels, with help from USA Today.

Volunteering this Thanksgiving? Learn the facts ahead of time—of how to be the most help—and understand how to really pitch in.

Traveling? Get the 2015 Travel Outlook. For travel tips, check out this article from the Washington Post.

Comments: (0)
Categories: InterfaithNational Observances

Nativity Fast: Orthodox Christians begin joyous fasting period for Jesus’s birth

Candles lit interior of Orthodox Christian church

Photo by Mr.TinDC, courtesy of Flickr

Nativity Orthodox iconSUNDAY, NOVEMBER 15: Even before the American Thanksgiving, millions of Orthodox Christians around the world are looking toward Jesus’s birth: the Nativity or Christmas as Western Christians call the Christian holiday. For centuries, Eastern Christians have prepared with a 40-day Nativity Fast.

By Western standards, this is a daunting spiritual and physical challenge. Traditional Orthodox fasting means giving up meat and dairy in addition to fish, wine and oil; fish, wine and oil are, however, permitted on specific days. (Learn more from the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America.) Throughout the Nativity Fast, several other holidays take place, such as St. Andrew’s Day, St. Nicholas Day and recognition of those prophets regarded by Eastern Christians as having prepared the way for the Incarnation: Obadiah, Nahum, Habbakuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Daniel and the Three Holy Youths.

Two periods comprise the Nativity Fast: Nov. 15-Dec. 19, and Dec. 20-24. December 20 launches the Forefeast of the Nativity, with chanting of Nativity hymns each day through the Dec. 24 (Paramony). On Paramony, no solid food is consumed until the first star is observed in the evening sky, and afterward, the fast is joyously broken.

Orthodox teaching instructs that fasting be undertaken with gladness and in a sense of earnest anticipation—in the promise that these devout preparations will deepen reflections on the moment when God became human. (OCA.org has more.) Fasting for Orthodox Christians includes abstinence from foods, negative emotions and greed; prayer and almsgiving complement the fasting period.

Note: The Nativity Fast is observed November 15-December 24 in the Gregorian calendar and the Revised Julian calendar. Followers of the Julian calendar, which is currently 13 days behind the Gregorian, will begin the fast on November 28 of the Gregorian calendar.

Comments: (0)
Categories: Christian

Diwali: Hindus, Jains, Sikhs celebrate festival of lights

Small lamps in leaf shapes filled with oil and lit with wick on one side

Diya, earthen lamps filled with oil, are lit for Diwali. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

WEDNESDAY, NOVEMBER 11—The festival of lights—marked by Hindus, Jains, Sikhs and friends of Indian culture—falls in October or November each year and lasts for five days. Check local news sources for Diwali celebrations near you, because American groups often move events to weekends.

“Delicious food and firecrackers are the hallmarks of Diwali,” says Anjali Charankar-Vale in this FeedTheSpirit column about Diwali. “We make a variety of sweet and spicy snack food items. Traditionally relatives and friends visit each other distributing sweets and wishing everyone best wishes for Diwali and the coming new year.” And, the story about Anjali’s holiday traditions includes a recipe for a tasty Diwali snack called shankarpali, a simple fried-flour treat.

Preparations for Diwali begin weeks in advance, so a flurry of pre-Diwali activity can be seen in most cities of India. In a shopping extravaganza comparable to the Western Christmas season, gold jewelry, fine clothing, sweet treats and household goods fly off racks in marketplaces across India. At home, surfaces are scrubbed clean, women and children decorate entrances with Rangoli and men string strands of lights. Official celebrations begin two days before Diwali, and end two days after Diwali—spanning a total of five days. (Wikipedia has details.) During this five-day period, the old year closes and a new year is rung in.

Did you know? Diwali is derived from the Sanskrit fusion of dipa (“light,” or “lamp”) and avali (“series,” “line,” or “row”). For Diwali, rows of lamps are lit in homes and temples.

Each day of Diwali signifies a principal story in Hindu legend, with rituals that follow. The breakdown goes something like this:

Day 1: Homes are cleaned; devotees shop for gold
Day 2
: Hindus display clay lamps; rangoli created with colored powders and sand
Day 3
: The main day of the festival, familes gather to perform Lakshmi Puja, a prayer for the goddess of wealth; the prayer is followed by feasts and fireworks
Day 4
: The first day of the New Year
Day 5
: Brother-sister relationships are strengthened when married sisters welcome their brothers into their homes, often with a lavish meal.

Diwali may be India’s biggest festival, but that doesn’t mean it’s limited to Indian borders—Diwali, or Deepavali, is also an official holiday in countries including Nepal, Sri Lanka, Trinidad, Fiji, Malaysia and Singapore, just to name a few.


On the night of Diwali, Jains celebrate light for yet another reason: to mark the attainment of moksha, or nirvana, by Mahavira. As the final Jain Tirthankar of this era, Mahavira’s attainment is celebrated with much fervor. It’s believed that many gods were present on the night when Mahavira reached moksha, and that their presence illuminated the darkness.

Sikhs mark the Bandi Chhor Divas on Diwali, when Guru Har Gobind Ji freed himself and the Hindu kings from Fort Gwalior and arrived at the Golden Temple in Amritsar. Today, Bandi Chhor Divas is commemorated with the lighting of the Golden Temple, fireworks and more.


Amazon_The_Great_Indian_Diwali_Sale__26__27__28_October_-_YouTubeA lot of pre-Diwali news stories focus on the retail bonanza. Tech in Asia magazine carried one of the best Diwali overviews of commerce, reported by India-based Paloma Ganguly:

India’s ecommerce giants are reaching out of their seamless virtual world to lure in new online shoppers using the realm of old media – advertisements in newspapers and magazine, and lively ads on TV and radio. This huge blitz by the likes of Amazon, Snapdeal, Flipkart, Jabong, and Urban Ladder comes ahead of people celebrating Diwali next week.

This is one festival that Indians wait for the whole year through, and the one time when they loosen their purse strings. From jewelry to clothes to cooking utensils to consumer durables, they are willing to splurge on anything.

To catch that generous Diwali shopping spirit, many ecommerce startups and titans alike have rolled out glittering print and TV ads that pack the power of celebrities and seasonal sentimentality. India has 350 million active web users out of a population of nearly 1.3 billion, so the festive ads on traditional media like TV are a way to lure in brand-new online shoppers – as well as a chance to dazzle ecommerce converts.

Check out this Amazon video advertisement for Diwali …

Comments: (0)
Categories: Uncategorized

Veterans Day: America celebrates veterans

WEDNESDAY, NOVEMBER 11—Check your local media for parades, wreath-laying ceremonies and, oh yes, lots of special offers for veterans: free meals, ice cream, hair cuts, car washes, admissions—and all sorts of other ways businesses salute veterans.

Many religious groups are organizing veterans’ events, sometimes on alternative dates. For example, if you’re near Washington D.C., visit the National Cathedral on Sunday, November 15, for a special preacher: the Rev. Dr. David Peters, an Army Reserve Instructor at the U.S. Army Chaplain Center and School.


Frank_Buckles_recruitment_picture WWI 1917 (1)

Frank Buckles (1901-2011) was the last surviving American veteran of World War I. He enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1917 and served with a detachment from Fort Riley, driving ambulances and motorcycles near the front lines in Europe.

The date has somber origins. Around the world, November 11 is remembered as the day an armistice—a cessation of hostilities—went into effect between the Allied nations and Germany, unofficially ending World War I, in 1918. The Treaty of Versailles ending the war was not signed until June 28, 1919. Europe, Britain and the Commonwealth countries commonly observe two minutes of silence at 11 a.m. each November 11; Canada pays tribute with Remembrance Day; the United States marks Veterans Day; and Britain keeps the second Sunday of November, with Remembrance Sunday.

In November of 1919, President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed November 11 as the commemoration of Armistice Day. Seven years later, Congress deemed Armistice Day a legal holiday; in 1954, that legal holiday was renamed “Veterans Day.” Though the Uniform Holiday Bill briefly moved Veterans Day to October, it returned to Nov. 11 in 1978.

Many new books and documentaries about World War I (1914-1918) have appeared recently, because of centennial milestones. But no World War I veterans are left. The last surviving American veteran, Frank Buckles, died in 2011 and the world’s final WWI veteran, Florence Green, died in the UK in 2012.

DID YOU KNOW? The phrase “war to end all wars,” began with the politically active science fiction writer H.G. Wells who argued sincerely that a defeat of the Axis Powers would end the practice of war. Later, President Wilson would use the phrase and, now, it is largely associated with the U.S. President. The irony is that Wells lived to 1946 and saw his earlier hopes tragically dashed.


100-QA-Veterans-Large-Book-391x579OUR VALUES—Sociologist Dr. Wayne Baker offers a fascinating series on veterans in his OurValues.org column. One of the findings he reports is that veterans actually experience less stress than Americans overall. “Many veterans suffer physical and emotional trauma,” Baker writes. “But, overall, veterans worry less and experience less stress than civilians do. How could this be so?” Read the OurValues.org series to find out.

100 QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS … The Michigan State University School of Journalism’s nationally known “Bias Busters” team has produced a guidebook about veterans, created to help civilians better understand the millions of American veterans. Differences in experience, age and background mean veterans’ perspectives are individual and unique. Yet all face similar questions and assumptions. This guide answers everyday questions that veterans say civilians ask about their experiences, needs, challenges and achievements. It is intended for people in business, schools, government, medicine, law enforcement, human resources and journalism who need a basic grounding.


Comments: (0)
Categories: Uncategorized