New Year’s Day: Shogatsu, the Solemnity of Mary and Feast of St. Basil

Platters in gold of lobster and other fancy Japanese delicacies

Traditional Japanese New Year’s foods. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

THURSDAY, JANUARY 1: The Gregorian year 2015 rings in at midnight, and around the world, parades, games and greetings fill the streets while traditional dishes fill tables in homes. Cultural customs vary from parades and football in the United States to ancestor tributes in Korea. Polar Bear Club plunges—jumping into icy-cold bodies of water—have been steadily gaining popularity in Canada, the United States, the UK, Netherlands and the Republic of Ireland, and in many areas, family and friends will gather for a New Year’s Day brunch. (Find interactive information and history at

Bake up some: Blini! Nothing says “New Year” quite like blini—in Russian culture, that is. Ancient Slavs regarded the thin pancakes as symbols of the sun, given their round form, and blini have been reserved for festive occasions for centuries. The Russian form of blini can be stuffed with cheese, and that recipe—along with two others, plus a personal tale of family history—can be found at Wall Street

Grey stone bell with simple Eastern carvings

Buddhist bells are run 108 times on New Year’s Eve. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons


The grand celebrations for Christmas in the West compare to elaborate preparations for New Year’s in the East, and Japan observes Shogatsu with grandeur. Families prepare weeks in advance, with most businesses closed on New Year’s Day. Traditional pressed rice cakes, mochi, are cooked ahead of time and then finally prepared in a variety of flavors. Some mochi are cooked with broth to create a New Year’s soup. (Read more from Food & Nutrition.)

At midnight on Dec. 31, Buddhist temples throughout Japan ring their bells 108 times, which is an auspicious number in Buddhist tradition. The Watch Night Bell is a renowned destination on New Year’s Eve. After midnight, families head to a local temple to pray, and then feast together on soba noodles. The following morning, New Year’s greetings are exchanged and delicacies like sashimi and sushi are consumed, while children are presented with small envelopes containing money. (Wikipedia has details.) Most New Year’s celebrations last several days.

Happy New Year!  Akemashite omedeto gozaimasu!


The octave of Christmas culminates in the feast of the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, on January 1. Feasts for the Mother of God were popular from the earliest centuries of the Church. (Learn more from Catholic Culture.) Millions of Christians, in Eastern and Western branches of the faith, turn to the Virgin Mary who is, by Greek description, the Theotokos “She Who Gave Birth to God.” (Note: in the Anglican and Lutheran denominations, the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ is observed today.)


Saint Basil the Great takes the cake—literally—in Greece and in the Orthodox Christian communities today. On New Year’s Eve, both adults and children walk through neighborhoods singing Kalanda—carols—and then gather for enormous bonfires. In hopes of luck in the New Year, tables are graced with plentiful dishes, and the St. Basil’s Cake is the centerpiece. The vasilopita, or St. Basil’s Cake, is cooked with a coin inside, and the recipient of the piece of cake with the coin is said to be lucky for the coming year. (Find a recipe here.)

St. Basil the Great was born in the 4th century CE in Caesarea of Cappadocia, to a family well known for its holiness. At his sister’s urging, Basil followed an ascetic life and visit monks in several regions. (Learn more from the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.) The saint inspired and preached throughout his life until his death, on January 1, 379 CE.

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Categories: BuddhistChristianFaiths of East AsiaInternational Observances

New Year’s Eve / Watch Night: Ring in 2015 with a world of traditions

2014 in colored firework lights on black background

Photo courtesy of ChristmasStockImages

WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 31: Champagne toasts, fireworks and rounds of “Auld Lang Syne” ring in the New Year across the globe, welcoming 2015. From the celebrities performing in New York at Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve with Ryan Seacrest, to families celebrating in their homes, all of us at ReadTheSpiritwish you a Happy 2015!


Champagne glasses with fireworks on black

Photo by Anton Diaz, courtesy of Flickr

In several world countries, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day bring gatherings of family and friends for elaborate meals, fireworks, drinks and parties. Many countries have also handed down traditions through the generations, such as a Mexican custom of eating one grape with each chime of the clock’s bell at midnight. With each grape, a wish is made. Homes in Mexico are decked out in representative colors, all with hopes for a better New Year: red for better luck in life and love, yellow for work, and green for wealth. Sweetbread is baked with a charm inside, and when the bread is served, the recipient of the charm in his slice is believed to be especially blessed for the New Year.

Since 1907, the famous New York City “ball drop” has marked New Year’s Eve and attracted crowds of spectators to the home of the 12-foot wide, nearly 12,000-pound Waterford crystal ball. Notable televised events began in 1956, with Guy Lombardo and his band broadcasting from the ballroom of New York’s Waldorf-Astoria hotel. During the tenure of Guy Lombardo, young Dick Clark began a broadcast on ABC, to rival the traditional big-band sounds of Lombardo. Following Lombardo’s death in 1977, focus shifted to Dick Clark, who hosted Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve for 33 years. Today, Ryan Seacrest continues to host the Dick Clark tradition on Dick Clark’s New Year’s Eve with Ryan Seacrest. Last year, Los Angeles began its own tradition of hosting a grand New Year’s Eve event in Grand Park. The public party drew more than 25,000 spectators, and is expected to continue each year.


This year, more than 1 million spectators are expected on the streets near Times Square for Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve with Ryan Seacrest. Confirmed to perform will be Taylor Swift, Idina Menzel, country-rocker Brantley Gilbert and Fergie. Elton John will be performing from Brooklyn, and Nick Jonas, One Direction and UK singer Ella Henderson will sing in Times Square. ABC will host the special, which will begin at 8 p.m. in Times Square, New York.


Watch Night became especially meaningful to African Americans when, on New Year’s Eve of 1862, slaves gathered to hear news about Abraham Lincoln’s plan to issue the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. The 150th anniversary of that historic declaration occurred two years ago in 2013, but many groups concerned about civil rights now are getting ready for sesquicentennial events marking the final adoption of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in December 1865. Speakers at some local Watch Night events will recall that entire sweep of history.

A quieter, thankful approach to New Year’s Eve has deep roots. Methodists observe “Watch Night” in a custom begun by Methodist founder John Wesley that involves giving thanks for the past year and expressing hopes for the New Year. Some other Protestant groups follow similar traditions. In the Roman Catholic Church, a vigil Mass has become popular on the evening of New Year’s Eve. (Wikipedia has details.)

Groups that prefer an alternative to alcohol-fueled parties also have adopted this practice.

New Year’s Eve party planning?

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Categories: ChristianInternational ObservancesNational Observances

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 and Wenceslaus, Boxing Day, mincemeat, too

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 (RBL).” The RBL is a popular 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