Christmas: Rejoice in the birth of Jesus with 2 billion Christians worldwide

Live Nativity with people

A live Nativity scene, from Radio City Music Spectacular. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

SUNDAY, DECEMBER 25: It’s Christmas Day for the vast majority of the world’s 2 billion Christians (including many Orthodox Christians in the U.S. who refer to the holiday as the Nativity), as the birth of Jesus is celebrated in great joy. 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.

Did you know? Some Christians around the world still mark Christmas according to earlier versions of global calendars, which pushes many Russian, Ukrainian and Serbian churches to a January 7 celebration.

A CHRISTMAS HISTORY

The Chronography of 354 AD is the oldest surviving reference to 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.

Dimly lit interior of church, decorated for Christmas

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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—while 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. For billions around the globe, Christmas today includes cookies, gift giving, shared feasts, cherished stories and songs and festive decorations.

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. 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.

ORTHODOX CUSTOMS

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 travel to Bethlehem for an hours-long, centuries-old liturgy in the Church of the Nativity.

RECIPES & MORE

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.

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Categories: Christian

Las Posadas: Embrace Hispanic culture with a warming nine-night tradition

Line of people dressed as shepherds and other figures from the manger scene

A Las Posadas procession. Photo by Anza Trail NPS, courtesy of Flickr

FRIDAY, DECEMBER 16: The elaborate Hispanic countdown to Christmas officially begins tonight, with Las Posadas—or Posadas Navidenas—across Mexico, in Guatemala and in regions of the United States. Tantalizing dishes, merry carols and the story of the nativity has been bringing together communities in Mexico for more than 400 years, in a beloved tradition that lasts nine nights and ends on Dec. 24. Each night of Las Posadas, a small, candlelit procession travels through a neighborhood, its participants dressed like Mary, Joseph, angels and shepherds and reenacting the search for a safe place to welcome the infant Jesus. Often, musicians follow the group, as do accompanying members of the community.

Posada, Spanish for “lodging,” or “accommodation,” describes the events of Las Posadas: as the procession stops at designated houses and asks permission to stay, it is prearranged that all homeowners turn away the visitors until the host family is reached. At the home of the host family (or, in some regions, a church), the visitors are welcomed inside, and all present kneel before a nativity. Following prayer, guests feast on traditional tamales and sip ponche navideno. Children often break a star-shaped piñata, and Christmas carols are sung by all. Tamales and ponche navideno are often washed down with rompope, a Mexican drink with a taste similar to eggnog.

POSADAS NAVIDENAS: FROM AZTEC WINTERS TO THE MANGER

Glass of yellow liquid with brown powder on top, bowl of brown powder to side

Rompope, a Mexican drink similar to eggnog, is a common drink during Las Posadas nights. Photo courtesy of Prexels

Roots of the nine-day Las Posadas likely lie in the Aztec winter celebration of the sun god, which took place over nine nights; when the native peoples of Mexico were converting to Catholicism, church leaders encouraged nine nights of devotion to the parents of Jesus—focusing each evening on a month of Mary’s pregnancy.

To this day, children follow tradition in dressing the parts of Mary, Joseph, angels and shepherds, and some carry poinsettias while others sing along, often accompanied by musicians. Finally, a designated home welcomes the guests, and merrymaking ensues.

Revelries outside of Mexico vary: in the Philippines, Posadas highlights a Panunuluyan pageant, a type of play portraying the story of Mary and Joseph and recited in a local language. In Nicaragua, the event lasts only one day. In the United States, several regions hold some type of Las Posadas celebration, most often with carols, reenactments and plenty of Mexican food.

RECIPES, RESOURCES, MAKING A PINATA & MORE

Shake off the winter chill by adopting a Las Posadas tradition in your neighborhood, and invite friends over for a traditional meal of vegetable tamale pie, Tijuana chicken and warm apple empanadas. Craft a simple piñata with help from OneCharmingParty.

For recipes for tamales, rompope and more, check out an article from the Washington Post and this Pinterest page.

As a learning resource, NBC News suggests Posadas Navidenas as one of five Latino holiday traditions to share with children.

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Categories: Christian

St. Nicholas Day: Welcoming the ‘real’ Santa Claus (and his companions)

Boat with people dressed in colorful outfits and Saint Nicholas

On December 5, Sinterklaas celebrations in the Netherlands welcome St. Nicholas and his companions as they arrive. Photo by Tom Jutte, courtesy of Flickr

SUNSET MONDAY, DECEMBER 5 and TUESDAY, DECEMBER 6: Whether he’s known as Sinterklaas, San Nicola or St. Nicholas in your part of the world, keep watch for the white-bearded man in the red suit, as Christians across the globe celebrate Saint Nicholas Day. In European countries, today’s festival means heaps of sweets, small toys and exciting surprises left by the famed fourth-century saint as he makes his rounds. By receiving gifts—or coal—on St. Nicholas Day, advocates of this observance say,  then children can focus on the birth of Jesus on Christmas Day.

ADVENT FOR WESTERN CHRISTIANS: This special season for more than a billion Western Christians begins on November 27, this year.

NATIVITY FAST FOR EASTERN CHRISTIANS: Families who belong to Orthodox churches began their annual fast on November 15.

BEHIND THE LEGEND: LIFE OF ST. NICHOLAS

The “real” story of Santa Claus begins with Nicholas, a man born in the 3rd century in modern-day Turkey. Orphaned at a young age, Nicholas took to heart the words of Jesus and eventually sold what his wealthy parents had left to him. Nicholas gave his proceeds to the poor, and was made bishop of Myra while still a relatively young man. His reputation for compassion and generosity continued. (Learn more from St. Nicholas Center.)

With the reign of Roman Emperor Diocletian, Christians—included Bishop Nicholas—were imprisoned and exiled. Following his release, Nicholas’s passion for helping others persisted. Stories of his deeds rapidly spun into legends, and many of those legends are still told on St. Nicholas Day.

Did you know? It is popular custom for families to host a St. Nicholas Day feast on the eve of this saint’s holiday, on December 5.

Wooden shoes filled with candies

Traditional shoes filled with sweets, a custom of St. Nicholas Day. Photo by Thomas Cizauskas, courtesy of Flickr

In 343 CE, Nicholas died in Myra on December 6, and was buried beneath his cathedral church. A relic known as manna formed in his grave, and the sweet-smelling liquid was rumored to have healing powers. This manna posthumously increased the popularity of the saint, and the anniversary of his death became a feast day in the Christian Church.

AROUND THE WORLD:
FRENCH MANNALA TO THE FIERA DI SAN NICOLA

In stark contrast to the secular figure of Santa Claus, St. Nicholas bears religious connotations in many of the countries that grandly celebrate his feast day. In Germany and Poland, boys dress as bishops and beg for alms for the poor; in the Netherlands and Belgium, it’s legend that St. Nicholas arrives by steamship and rides a white horse. French children often hear the tales of St. Nicholas from grandparents and elders, while gingerbread cookies and mannala (a brioche shaped like the bishop) are prepared in kitchens and bakeries. In Italy, the Fiera di San Nicola (St. Nicholas Fair) is celebrated in early December.

ACTIVITIES, RESOURCES & SPECULAAS GINGER COOKIES

Children young and old can get into the spirit of St. Nicholas with help from the St. Nicholas Center, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting his life.

New this year at the St. Nicholas Center: For 2016, this page lists the site’s new additions. A few of the highlights include:

Across the site, visitors can find everything from printable candy bar wrappers and paper bag puppets to recipes for St. Nicholas cookies and chocolate initial cookies. Men dressing up as St. Nicholas can join the St. Nicholas Directory, and churches can find inspiration from a new devotional: “From the Holly Jolly to the Holy: Reclaiming the Sacred during Advent and Christmas.”

In addition, Sycamore Stirrings suggests ideas for St. Nicholas spoon puppets.

ZWARTE PIET‘ CONTROVERSY

St. Nicholas has many different companions, according to traditions that evolved across Europe. The St. Nicholas Center offers an overview of the entire array, which includes a white horse, a donkey, angels and then some companions from the dark side of mythology. Among them is Krampus, a demonic figure associated with St. Nicholas in some European cultures. Krampus was  largely unknown outside of Europe until the last decade when versions of the demon began showing up in a handful of American TV shows and even a 2015 feature film.

The most controversial figure from the dark side of the St. Nicholas legend is Zwarte Piet (Black Peter), who has been popular in the Netherlands and also Belgium and Luxembourg. Historians debate whether this figure, often described as the saint’s playful black servant, was part of popular traditions before the mid 19th Century. But, all agree that a hugely popular 1850 children’s book crystalized the figure as part of St. Nicholas Day in the Low Countries.

The St. Nicholas Center has a lengthy, detailed history of this controversial figure, including updated information for 2016. Dutch communities are gradually coming to terms with this figure, who many observers around the world now consider a racist stereotype. Some traditional Dutch towns continue to feature Piet in the original black-face characterization. Other cities, businesses and organizations are changing to more acceptable forms of Piet: some as rainbow-hued helpers; some as a servant whose face is dark from chimney soot.

At a November 12 event welcoming St. Nicholas and his companions, approximately 20,000 spectators gathered in the Dutch town of Maasluis; though protests were banned for the day, more than 100 people began protesting Black Pete and were arrested but soon released. (This news publication has the story.)

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Categories: ChristianInternational 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. Some Orthodox follow other traditional calendars. For example, many Armenian Christians begin their fast later and focus on January 6 as the Feast of the Nativity.

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Categories: Christian

Lammas, Lughnasadh: Christians, Pagans observe ancient grain harvest festival

Wheat in field with blue sky in background

Lammas has historically been a festival of the wheat harvest, accompanied by athletic games, feasting and blessings. Photo by Chaitanya K., courtesy of Pixabay

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MONDAY, AUGUST 1: As the heat of July breaks into August—Christians, Pagans and many others from areas of England, Ireland and Scotland mark the feast of Lammas.

An ancient festival of the wheat harvest, Lammas—or Lughnasadh—has long been called “the feast of first fruits.” In England and some English-speaking countries, August 1 is “Lammas Day;” historically, it was customary to bring a loaf of bread made from the new wheat crop to church for a blessing. For many, Lammas was a time of gratitude, as the hard work of planting gave way to the bounty of the harvest.

Interested in the bread traditions of world faiths? Check out Lynne Meredith Golodner’s “The Flavors of Faith: Holy Breads,” which includes recipes, photos and engaging stories of the place where bread and faith intersect.

Loaf of wheat bread cut into slices on wooden cutting board

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

In the Neopagan and Wiccan Wheels of the Year, Lughnasadh is one of eight sabbats and the first of three harvest festivals (the other harvest festivals being Mabon, or autumn equinox, and Samhain). Today, common foods on the table at Lughnasadh are apples, grains, breads and berries. (Learn more from Wicca.com.) Some mark this festival on July 31, though it is most widely observed on the first day of August.

For Christians, Lammas has been a time for blessing loaves made of fresh wheat. In time, Christians also created a version of the Scottish Highland Quarter Cake for Lammas, which bore Christian symbols on the top. (Catholic Culture has a recipe.)

Lughnasadh customs were commonplace until the 20th century, though evidence of ongoing tradition is seen in the popular Puck Fair of County Kerry and Christian pilgrimages. (Wikipedia has details on Lammas and Lughnassadh.) Throughout Ireland’s history, significant mountains and hills were climbed at Lughnasadh; the custom was brought into Christianity when Christian pilgrimages were undertaken near August 1. The most well-known pilgrimage of this type is Reek Sunday, a trek to the top of Croagh Patrick in County Mayo in late July that continues to draw tens of thousands of Christian pilgrims each year.

Family reunions are still common among the Irish diaspora near August 1, and in Ireland, several towns have recently created Lughnasadh festivals and fairs to parallel Puck Fair. For centuries, Lammas has been a time to gather wild berries—bilberries, in particular, but also blackberries and blueberries–for eating, baking and making wine.

 

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Categories: ChristianWiccan / Pagan

Trinity Sunday: Christians celebrate Father, Son, Holy Spirit after Penetecost

Painting of man on cloud, old, another man, young, and dove flying above

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

SUNDAY, MAY 22: It’s been one week since Pentecost, and for Western Christians, this marks Trinity Sunday. A celebration of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity—the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit—Trinity Sunday is celebrated across Western liturgical churches. Though the early Church observed no specific day for the Holy Trinity, Thomas Becket (1118-70 CE) helped spread the observance of such a day across Western Christendom when he said that the day of his consecration would be held as a new festival for the Holy Trinity. Still, a day set aside solely for the Holy Trinity continued to vary by Sunday in several regions until Pope John XXII accepted the festival into the official calendar of the Western Church, in 1334 CE.

Note: The Thursday following Trinity Sunday is observed as the Feast of Corpus Christi. In some countries, this feast may be moved to the following Sunday.

According to Christian tradition: Following the Ascension of Jesus and Pentecost, Christians regard that the Holy Trinity has been fully revealed. Last week, signs of the Holy Spirit were evident in red banners, roses and doves; this week, vestments are white and a new season begins. The shamrock and viola tricolor pansy symbolize the Trinity, and in some churches, the Athanasian Creed is recited or read.

ACTIVITIES & MORE

Families, youth groups and others can teach St. Augustine’s simplified explanation of the Trinity to children today. Children can also go outdoors to search for shamrocks and pansies, or prepare a dinner with cloverleaf rolls and a three-in-one fruit salad. The table may be decorated with a “Trinity” candle, and a vase of collected tri-petal wildflowers.

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Categories: Christian

Pentecost: Red flowers and doves for birthday of the Christian Church

“And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting.”
Acts 2

Church altar draped in red cloth with dove and flames on it, candles on top of cloth

An altar decorated for Pentecost. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

SUNDAY, MAY 15: The ancient feast of Pentecost is marked with red drapery and vestments, symbols of the Holy Spirit, processions and holy sacraments. Though Pentecost originates from the Greek translation of the Jewish springtime festival now celebrated as Shauvot, it has been observed by Christians for centuries, and falls seven weeks after Easter.

In Christian tradition, Pentecost commemorates the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles, women and other followers of Jesus, giving them the ability to speak in many languages for the purpose of spreading the Word of God. In this manner, some Christians regard Pentecost as the “birthday of the Church.”

ORTHODOX CHRISTIANS—This year, Pentecost is observed by the Eastern Orthodox Christian Church on June 19, as Pascha (Easter) was celebrated long after the Western Christian Easter.

TRADITIONAL STORY

According to the Book of Acts and Christian tradition: Approximately 120 followers of Christ were gathered on the morning that the Pentecost took place, in the Upper Room. Then, a roar of wind came into the room, and tongues of fire descended upon those in the room. With the gift of the tongues of fire, those gathered believed evidence of the presence of the Holy Spirit; they began speaking many different languages. (Learn more from Catholic Culture.) Peter proclaimed the fulfillment of a prophesy.

When the group left the Upper Room, a crowd had gathered. While some accused the followers of Christ of sputtering drunken babble, Peter corrected them and declared that an ancient prophesy had been fulfilled. When the crowds asked what they could do, Peter told the people to repent and be baptized—which thousands did.

You can read the key passage from the second chapter of the Book of Acts yourself in this New Revised Standard Version of the Bible.

Rose petals strewn on floor

Rose petals fill a Roman church on Pentecost. Photo by Stefano Costantini, courtesy of Flickr

PENTECOST IN THE WEST:
FIRE AND DOVES

Pentecost services in the Western Christian Church often involve red flowers, vestments and banners, all representing the Holy Spirit and tongues of fire. Trumpets and brass ensembles may depict the sound of the “mighty wind” in a musical manner. There is even an old tradition of Holy Ghost holes in the roofs of churches, so that the Holy Spirit could “descend” upon the congregation; at Pentecost, the holes were decorated and a dove was lowered into the church. (Wikipedia has details.) In Italy, rose petals scattered from above represent the fiery tongues; in parts of England, Whit Fairs and Morris dancing were commonplace on Whitsunday, or Penecost.

 

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Categories: Christian