Cinco de Mayo: Say ‘Ole!’ and celebrate Mexican culture

Tacos, limes, salsa, Mexican food

Photo courtesy of Pixabay

THURSDAY, MAY 5: Crunch into a crispy tostada and smell the tantalizing aromas of a sizzling Mexican kitchen—it’s Cinco de Mayo! For one day, Mexican culture resonates around the world: The American President officially declares the holiday; Canadians hold street festivals; Australians put on a cultural fest and Brits celebrate with a toast to Mexico. Ironically, this global recognition of the Mexican nation didn’t start in Mexico: It started in the United States, where Americans of Mexican origin were commemorating a Mexican victory in the Battle of Puebla of 1862.

Spanish for the fifth of May, Cinco de Mayo recalls the Mexican victory at the Battle of Puebla in 1862. In a true underdog story, Mexico was exhausted and in debt from years of fighting when its poorly equipped, outnumbered militia took on the well-outfitted, larger French army that hadn’t been defeated in decades—and won. Though the win was fairly short-lived, it nonetheless gave Mexico’s army and people a much-needed sense of national pride that is still remembered today. Since the first local Cinco de Mayo parties hosted by Mexicans mining in California, the holiday has expanded internationally.

Today, across the United States, Canada, the Caribbean, Australia, New Zealand, England and France, Cinco de Mayo is an occasion to revel in Mexican food, culture, dance and music. Many American schools and communities hold Mexican educational events, and iconic Mexican symbols—including the Virgin of Guadalupe—are displayed. May 5 is also celebrated throughout the state of Puebla, in Mexico.


Of course, what is Cinco de Mayo without some tantalizing Mexican recipes?

Try a few suggestions from Food Network, the Huffington Post and Fox News.

Those hosting a party can find decoration ideas, food suggestions and more from Martha Stewart.

Vegetarian? Try this compilation of recipes.


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Categories: International ObservancesNational Observances

Mother’s Day: Millions of Americans celebrate ‘Mom’—however defined

Woman with two twin girls, young

Photo by Donnie Ray Jones, courtesy of Flickr

SUNDAY, MAY 8: Honor Mom today with a bouquet of flowers, a homemade card or just your time, as today marks the American version of Mother’s Day. A 1908 church service in West Virginia gave birth to the holiday now known across the U.S. as Mother’s Day—a national holiday that, annually, grosses billions of dollars in flowers, gifts and cards and pays homage to the millions of mothers across the country. Though versions of the current American Mother’s Day predated its creation—and, worldwide, several variations have existed for centuries—today’s modern holiday holds no ties to a particular historical saint or figure, but, rather, just to Mom. The first “official” service took place at the Andrews Methodist Episcopal Church in Grafton, West Virginia, where a woman by the name of Anna Jarvis honored her own mother. After exhaustive campaigning by Jarvis, President Woodrow Wilson set aside the second Sunday in May as Mother’s Day, by 1914.

It may seem ironic that the primary advocate of the first Mother’s Day—Anna Jarvis—soon regretted having petitioned so persistently for the holiday, as the commercialism that rapidly followed its ascent was a stark contrast to the small-scale, personalized holiday that had originally been envisioned. Nonetheless, experts attest that had it not been for the early commercialization of Mother’s Day, it—like other smaller holidays of its time—would likely have fizzled out.

Did you know? Andrews Methodist Episcopal Church of Grafton, built in 1873, became the site of an International Mother’s Day Shrine in the 1960s. In 1992, it was designated a National Historic Landmark.

During the 1850s, Ann Reeves Jarvis of West Virginia held Mother’s Day work clubs to improve sanitation conditions, lower rates of infant mortality, fight disease and contamination and assist other mothers. When the Civil War broke out, women in these clubs looked after wounded soldiers. Upon the death of Ann Reeves Jarvis in 1905, her daughter, Anna Jarvis, was prompted to organize a tribute service for her at her church. Jarvis distributed hundreds of carnations—her mother’s favorite flower—to mothers at Andrews Methodist Episcopal Church, in Grafton.


Hallmark is releasing cards for Mother’s Day 2016 geared toward the “new normal” of family structures, reports USA Today. This year, card messages focus not only on traditional moms, but also on stay-at-home dads, divorced parents and same-sex couples. According to a Hallmark representative, “Now you see a huge range of situations represented … We are really trying to represent a diverse range of relationships that represent current society.”


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Categories: National Observances

Lailat al Miraj: Muslims celebrate ‘Night Journey,’ origin of faith’s daily prayers

Winged horse with human head on cloud, artistic depiction

Buraq, believed to be the steed that carried Muhammad on his Night Journey. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

THURSDAY, MAY 5: Millions of Muslims worldwide celebrate two phenomenal “night journeys” today that shaped Islam on the holiday known as Lailat al Miraj. (Note: Date may vary based on regional moon sightings.) For one night, Muslims commemorate the Prophet Muhammad’s journey from Mecca to the “Farthest Mosque” in Jerusalem, and then, finally, to heaven, where he was purified and given instructions from Allah to pray five times per day. Muslim tradition also describes the prophet, accompanied by the archangel Gabriel, meeting other prophets during his journey: Adam, John the Baptist, Moses and Abraham, just to name a few. The events of this night are recorded in both the Quran and the Hadith (the sayings of the Prophet).

Did you know? The “night journeys” are believed to have taken place around the year 621 CE.

The events of this sacred night are divided into two parts: in Arabic, Isra and Mi’raj. As the traditional story is told, the Prophet Muhammad’s journey begins in Mecca, at a time when he was “in a state midway between sleep and wakefulness;” Muhammad was granted wisdom and belief, and was washed clean. After a greeting by the Gabriel, Muhammad mounted Al-Buraq—a mythical animal often depicted as a great flying horse with a human face— and traveled to the “farthest mosque” (believed to be at the present site of the Masjid al-Aqsa mosque, or “Temple Mount,” in Jerusalem), where he was tested by Gabriel at God’s command. When he passed the test, Muhammad then ascended to the nearest heaven.

Fast Fact: Isra describes the first portion of the night’s journey, from Mecca to the “farthest mosque” in Jerusalem; Mi’raj is the second portion of the journey, when Muhammad traveled to heaven.

Traveling through the seven levels of heaven, Muhammad finally reached the presence of Allah (God), and was told to instruct Muslims to pray 50 times per day; afterward, upon Moses’s suggestion, Muhammad begged for reductions, until Allah reduced the number to five. At that time, Muhammad returned to Mecca.

Did you know? Following Muhammad’s initial instructions, the earliest Muslims prayed in the direction of Jerusalem, although this location later was changed to Mecca.


Today, Muslims commemorate Lailat al Miraj by attending services at the mosque, relaying the story of the “night journey” to children and reciting specific nighttime prayers. Isra and Mi’raj observances are joyous, and often include festivities enjoyed by children and adults alike. Lailat al Mi’raj is one of the most prominent events on the Islamic calendar.

NEWS: The New Jersey state Board of Education this week approved a list of religious holidays in the upcoming school year, for which schools must allow excused absences. Updated annually, this list includes more than 100 holidays for 2016-2017, including Lailat al Miraj.


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Categories: Muslim

Yom HaShoah: Remembering the Holocaust and heroism

Young people dressed in white and blue carry Israeli flags and walk down railroad tracks at Auschwitz-Birkenau

March of the Living participants, April 2007. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

SUNSET WEDNESDAY, MAY 4: An Israeli memorial for the 6 million Jewish deaths during the Holocaust is commemorated worldwide as Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day. In Israel, state-sponsored and synagogue ceremonies, moments of silence and a March of the Living all paint the picture of this solemn observance.

Sometimes translated “Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day,” Yom HaShoah has been defined, in recent decades, as having a scope broader than the millions of deaths at the hands of the Nazis and their allies: Today, those who mark this annual observance also remember the Jewish resistance during that era, they celebrate righteous acts in such dangerous times, and they emphasize the meaning of human dignity. (Learn more from the Jewish Virtual Library.)

Yom HaShoah was inaugurated in Israel in 1953, and by the next decade, a siren of silence filled the country’s streets for several minutes each year on the 27th of Nisan. No public entertainment is permitted on Yom HaShoah, and all radio and television programs focus on the day’s memorial.

In 1953, Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and Israeli President Yitzhak Ben-Zvi signed the proposal for Yom HaShoah, enacting it as law. In Israel, Yom HaShoah is a national memorial day. Flags are flown at half mast; sirens blare in the evening and the following morning; services are held at military bases, in schools and by various organizations. (Wikipedia has details.) Though no specific rituals are carried out on this day, memorial candles and prayers are common.


Each year, one of the major themes associated with Yom HaShoah is the commitment to never forget what happened in this horrific genocide. In the U.S., public schools that once ignored the Holocaust in standard lesson plans—began to include this chapter of history after major public efforts in the 1970s and 1980s. Holocaust memorials, including the national museum in Washington D.C., continued to open. But many who care about this issue are concerned that the message could be fading.

One of the strongest voices on this theme in early 2016 is the Boston Globe’s columnist Jeff Jacobi. The son of a Holocaust survivor himself, Jacobi raises an important warning about the potential to forget.

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Categories: Jewish

Earth Day: In 46th year, join the movement to plant 7.8 billion trees

Tree in forest Earth Day

Photo courtesy of

FRIDAY, APRIL 22: What started as a political movement born out of necessity in response to current events has evolved into a worldwide initiative with deep spiritual connections, as the world celebrates the 46th annual Earth Day. Spearheaded by Sen. Gaylord Nelson in 1970, the Earth Day Network—now a powerful force behind Earth Day and environmental action on several levels—has dubbed this year’s theme, “Trees for the Earth.” Planting enough trees is, according to the organization, one of the best ways to effectively clean our polluted air and effectively assist in several other pressing environmental issues. With a goal of planting 7.8 billion trees, the Earth Day Network calls on volunteers, financial supporters and—on a grassroots level—everyone. The Earth Day Network encourages religious participation by explaining that, “We encourage all people of faith across the globe to join us on Earth Day.”

This year, the Earth Day Network explains:

“In 1970, the year of our first Earth Day, the movement gave voice to an emerging consciousness, channeling human energy toward environmental issues. Forty-six years later, we continue to lead with groundbreaking ideas and by the power of our example.

And so it begins. Today. Right here and right now. Earth Day is more than just a single day — April 22, 2016. It’s bigger than attending a rally and taking a stand.

This Earth Day and beyond, let’s make big stuff happen. Let’s plant 7.8 billion trees for the Earth. Let’s divest from fossil fuels and make cities 100% renewable. Let’s take the momentum from the Paris Climate Summit and build on it.

Let’s start now. And let’s not stop.”
Faith-based resources: Convenient links will take you to statements of concern for the Earth from a host of religious groups. Need some inspiring material to carry with you into your congregation? You’ll find plenty of choices from that online starting point.


Engineers may design eco-friendly energy sources and leaders support a “green economy,” but Earth Day Network insists it’s everyday people—those who live sustainably by conserving resources, recycling, buying organic produce and performing other individual acts—who truly make a difference on a global scale.

Earth Day Network also coordinates and inspires several events across the U.S., which includes the Earth Month Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math Fair (STEM Fair); the Environmental Film Festival; and the Green Fashion Show. The STEM Fair was underwritten by NASA, Grant Thornton, Chobani and Copia.

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Categories: International ObservancesNational Observances

Passover: Jews gather ’round the seder table, share stories and history

Passover table set with candles, plates, glasses

A table set for Passover. Photo by April Killingsworth, courtesy of Flickr

SUNSET FRIDAY, APRIL 22: Jewish families around the globe sit down to seder tables and remember the ancient, biblical story of freedom as Passover begins.

Recalling the liberation of the Jewish people in the Exodus, Passover is so named because of the 10th plague of ancient Egypt, which was, quite literally, a Passover. (The 10th plague killed firstborn children, but passed over the homes with Jewish children.) The Seder meal, undertaken after sunset, may also be attended by non-Jews or friends of Jews. The meal is replete with centuries-old rituals, stories, readings, songs and lively discussions. The Passover period of 2016 ends at sundown on Saturday, April 30.

Want fresh Passover recipes and more? Check out Bobbie Lewis’s FeedTheSpirit column, which features a mouthwatering take on charoset (plus a timely explanation of Passover’s annual date on the calendar).

Think Passover isn’t rooted in real food? Think again! A second FeedTheSpirit column features a guest columnist who grew up as a Jew on a sheep farm—and offers a real-food perspective that seamlessly links traditional perspectives with today’s most relevant issues.

Invited to a seder and not sure what to do? Learn about all of the Jewish holidays, what a seder looks like and so much more with Michigan State University’s recent release, 100 Questions & Answers about American Jews.


In the weeks and months before Passover, Jewish families meticulously clear their homes of any type of leavened grain, known as chametz. The removal of the final chametz can even be made into a fun ritual game, for which children often get involved. For the Passover meal, many Jews may cook with a separate set of cooking utensils and host dinners with a “clean” set of dishes—that is, items that are put aside especially for Passover and have never come into contact with chametz. Any leavened grains in the home may be temporarily sold to non-Jewish friends or neighbors.

Close-up matzah cracker, broken

A matzah cracker. Photo by Avital Pinnick, courtesy of Flickr

According to tradition, the Jewish people left ancient Egypt to follow Moses once they had been freed. They left in such a hurry, however, that the bread they baked for the journey out of Egypt didn’t have time to rise—and, thus, Passover breads are unleavened. Called matzah, the unleavened bread is consumed throughout Passover. In Israel today, Passover lasts seven days; outside of Israel, Passover is eight days.

Passover seders—typically, the most attended events of the Jewish year—last several hours or more. Table settings, foods served and even the ceremonial prayers used are precise and carefully selected. During the seder, the story of Exodus is commemorated through readings from the Haggadah. Multiple food courses are served during the meal, and children enjoy many of the songs and activities.

Did you know? The true intent of the Passover seder is to not only recall Jewish history, but to discuss the contemporary meaning of ancient Jewish wisdom, passing on that valuable information to the next generation of Jews.

During Passover, the Torah obligation of the Counting of the Omer begins. On the second day, the omer—a unit of measure—begins being used to count the days from Passover to Shavuot.

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Categories: Jewish

Mahavir Jayanti: Jains honor final Tirthankar, meditate, teach non-violence

Jain temple with elaborate gardens in front of busy Indian landscape, lots of buildings in back

A jain temple in Calcutta. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

TUESDAY, APRIL 19: A national holiday previously slotted for April 20 has recently been moved to today, Indian news sources report, as Jains arrive at one of the most significant days of their calendar year: Mahavir Jayanti, the birth anniversary of the final and most important Tirthankar, Mahavira.

In the Jain faith, each cycle of time—according to the laws of nature—gives birth to 24 Tirthankars, or souls that have attained ultimate purity and possess divine power. These Tirthankars were fully human, but achieved enlightenment through meditation and self-realization.

Today, Jains visit colorfully decorated temples, perform religious rituals and prayer and ceremonially bathe statues of Mahavira. As Jainism focuses heavily on meditation and the path of virtue, many Jains spend Mahavir Jayanti contemplating and then living out the virtuous path, by performing acts of charity.


According to texts, Mahavira was born the son of King Siddhartha and Queen Trishala, in 599 BCE. While pregnant with Mahavira, Queen Trishala had a series of dreams about her unborn child—dreams that, astrologers revealed, meant that she would give birth to either an emperor or a Tirthankar.

From an early age, Mahavira was interested in Jainism and meditation. By age 30, he was an ascetic who spent more than 10 years seeking spiritual truth. From that point, Mahavira preached on non-violence and righteousness until his death. He spoke of karma, and of the cycles of life and death.

Historically, Mahavira laid the foundation for the religion that is now Jainism.


Thousands of Sikhs and other community members recently gathered in Times Square, in an event for the holiday of Vaisakhi. (Economic Times has the story.) The event sought to educate non-Sikhs on the Sikh religion, as the group has experienced recent hate crimes. Some dubbed the day “Turban Day,” as the Sikhs handed out turbans and tied them on the heads of interested tourists and onlookers.

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Categories: Faiths of IndiaSikh