Nativity Fast: Preparations begin for Orthodox Christians

Crowd standing, of men, women and children, candles in front

An Orthodox Christian Christmas (Nativity) service in Russia. Photo courtesy of President of Russia

FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 15—or THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 28: The season of preparation for Christ’s birth begins for Orthodox Christians with a 40-day period of abstinence known as the Nativity Fast.

Usually, our ReadTheSpirit magazine column about this centuries-old practice focuses on the earlier start of the fasting period, which is most common in the U.S. Here is how the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America explains this period of self-denial and deepening spiritual reflection:

The Nativity Fast is one of four main fast periods throughout the ecclesiastical year. Beginning on November 15 and concluding on December 24, the Nativity Fast gives individuals the opportunity to prepare for the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord and Savior  on December 25. By abstaining from certain food and drink—particularly from meat, fish, dairy products, olive oil, and wine—as well as focusing more deeply on prayer and almsgiving, we can find that the primary aim of fasting is to make us conscious of our dependence upon God.

However, in this 2019 holiday column we are aware of almost daily newspaper headlines about Ukraine and Russia—so we are including their later starting date, as well. That variance between starting on what today is November 15 and 28 stems from traditional methods of keeping the calendar through many centuries. Some Orthodox church headquarters in the U.S. now list both dates on their websites, because parish leaders know that some families who attend prefer to follow one calendar—while others may follow calendars that match relatives in their countries of origin.

One Russian Orthodox church on the West Coast, for example, has this note on its website’s calendar: “During this fast, the general rule is that from Nov. 15/Nov. 28—and up until the Feast of Nativity (Christmas)—no meat, meat-products, dairy, dairy-products or egg and egg-products are eaten. Children under 7, lactating and pregnant women are exempt.” Both dates are offered because it’s clear to the pastor that Orthodox Christians from other backgrounds like to attend liturgies at that church.

Many American-based Orthodox clergy and lay people have to navigate complex cultural expectations.

Making American Exceptions and Adaptations

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

One of the most popular writers about American Orthodox faith and culture is theologian and educator Federica Matthewes-Green—a famous convert to Orthodoxy in the early 1990s. Over the past two decades, she has appeared on national panels and in public TV documentaries as an expert on the American experience of Orthodoxy. Among her most popular introductions to the Orthodox church is her 1997 memoir, Facing East—A Pilgrim’s Journey into the Mysteries of Orthodoxy

In that book, she writes:

Last Saturday, when I went out with a friend for lunch, I mentioned that we were in the Nativity fast. When she asked what that meant, I replied that we go without meat from November 15 to Christmas, 40 days. Our parish doesn’t observe a stringent fast now like we do before Pascha (Easter), though some Orthodox do. I said, “Of course, we make an exception on Thanksgiving. We eat turkey.”

“Then what?” she asked. “Do you have to feel guilty about it and go to confession?”

“No,” I said, “American Orthodox generally make an exception and feast on Thanksgiving. Because it’s a local custom.” A minute later I realize how funny this sounds In Orthodoxy, the vast United States of America from sea to shining sea is “local.”

‘We Fast Faithfully and in Secret’

Despite that practical advice from her parish—most official Orthodox websites, even in the U.S., don’t mention a Thanksgiving adaptation. What they offer is pastoral advice about the contemporary spiritual value of fasting—and a warning not to judge others for how they choose to follow this call to self denial. Pastors tend to warn against pointing fingers at others whose fasting practice may not be as strict.

Here’s an example from the website of the Antiochian Orthodox archdiocese for America. The archdiocesan website first offers a detailed fasting chart, then adds this pastoral advice:

The purpose of fasting is to focus on the things that are above, the Kingdom of God. It is a means of putting on virtue in reality, here and now. Through it we are freed from dependence on worldly things. We fast faithfully and in secret, not judging others, and not holding ourselves up as an example. 

Fasting in itself is not a means of pleasing God. Fasting is not a punishment for our sins. Nor is fasting a means of suffering and pain to be undertaken as some kind of atonement. Christ already redeemed us on His Cross. Salvation is a gift from God that is not bought by our hunger or thirst.

We fast to be delivered from carnal passions so that God’s gift of Salvation may bear fruit in us. We fast and turn our eyes toward God in His Holy Church. Fasting and prayer go together. Fasting is not irrelevant. Fasting is not obsolete, and it is not something for someone else. Fasting is from God, for us, right here and right now. 

NATIVITY FAST: PROPHETS & PARAMONY

Woman with baby, surrounded by other figures, in iconic ilustration

An Eastern Orthodox Christian depiction of the Nativity. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Throughout the Nativity Fast, several key figures are highlighted with feast days—in particular, the prophets who Eastern Christians believe laid the groundwork for the Incarnation: Obadiah, Nahum, Habbakuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Daniel and the Three Holy Youths. Sundays leading up to Nativity also bring attention to ancestors of the Church and righteous men and women who pleased God.

The Forefeast of the Nativity begins December 20 (or later, depending on one’s calendar), with the chanting of Nativity hymns every day until the Eve of the Nativity—or, Paramony. On Paramony—called Christmas Eve in the Western Christian Church—no solid food is partaken until the first star is seen in the evening sky. The fast is joyously broken, and while many head to the traditional All-Night Vigil, others attend the Divine Liturgy for the Nativity of Christ on Christmas morning.

On December 25, the Feast of the Nativity, fasting is forbidden; a fast-free period, or Afterfeast, lasts through January 4—or later, depending on one’s calendar.

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Categories: Christian

Kristallnacht: Remembering ‘The Night of Broken Glass’

Black-and-white photo of broken windows, two people walking by

The night after Kristallnacht. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 9: The sound of broken glass still echoes around the world on November 9, as communities remember the tragic events that took place in 1938 during Kristallnacht.

That is especially true across the U.S. after last year’s murder of 11 people at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh just days before this annual memorial. Just two examples from this national conversation are this Religion News Service commentary and this piece in The Washington PostBoth of those were published in late 2018—and similar reflections are showing up this year.

Texas-based educator Deborah Fripp just published a column in The Times of Israel that included these words:

“Why do we need to teach the Holocaust? This week, as we mark the first yahrzeit[1] of the eleven people murdered at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, I want to explore this question from a different angle, an angle of hopeful action.

In the aftermath of Pittsburgh, and approaching the anniversary of Kristallnacht, the question of why we need to teach the Holocaust takes on renewed urgency. Antisemitism is not a thing of the past. The stories of the Holocaust suddenly feel less like sad history and more like stark warning: Do not ignore the rising shadow of hate in your community or it may engulf you.”

KRISTALLNACHT: WHAT HAPPENED

Literally “Crystal Night,” Kristallnacht was so called for the shattered glass that covered streets and sidewalks after thousands of Jewish synagogues and buildings were destroyed. Kristallnacht was a coordinated series of attacks by the Nazis in Germany and Austria; German law-enforcement officials were ordered not to intervene during the destruction. Jewish persecution moved into a dramatically public and violent phase, and while their schools, stores, hospitals and places of worship were being destroyed, Jews were beaten in the streets and detained for concentration camps.

The History channel website offers some horrific images of what unfolded in 1938.

Foreign journalists in Germany reported on the events, alerting their respective homelands of the shocking events: For the first time, the public fully understood the alarming intentions of the Nazi regime. International support of pro-Nazi movements declined almost overnight, and many reports compared Kristallnacht to the gruesome pogroms of Imperial Russia.

As was written in The Times of Kristallnacht: No foreign propagandist bent upon blackening Germany before the world could outdo the tale of burnings and beatings, of blackguardly assaults on defenseless and innocent people, which disgraced that country yesterday.

Kristallnacht marked a public turning point in the Nazi regime. The attacks on Jewish neighbors, businesses and houses of worship shocked the world; the Nazi regime’s intentions could no longer be denied. The 1,400 synagogues attacked on Kristallnacht, the 90 Jews murdered that night, and the 30,000 Jews detained for concentration camps foretold of the tragedies to come.

LEADING TO KRISTALLNACHT

In the 1920s, German Jews lived as other citizens: operating businesses, obtaining licenses and having access to education. Yet with the appointment of Adolf Hitler as Chancellor of Germany in 1933, things quickly began to change. Hitler immediately introduced anti-Jewish policies and forbade inter-religious marriage. When Jews sought refuge, foreign countries began locking down admissions. In August 1938, residence permits for foreigners were cancelled; thousands of Jews were forced from their homes with nowhere to go, their possessions seized by Nazi authorities. It was with these expulsions that the ground was laid for Kristallnacht.

Among those expelled from Germany was the family of Herschel Grynszpan, a 17-year-old Jew living in Paris with his uncle. When his family wrote, pleading for help, Grynszpan assassinated German diplomat Ernst vom Rath—stating that his protest had to be heard around the world. The following day, the German government removed Jewish children from public schools and halted Jewish cultural activities and publications. When word of vom Rath’s death reached Hitler, a pogrom was organized—an act that Hitler and his inner circle had been planning already, just awaiting a trigger like the shooting.

Kristallnacht ensued that evening.

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Categories: International ObservancesJewish

Allhallowtide, Samhain & Dia de los Muertos: Happy Halloween!

Jack-o-lantern faces lit against darkness

Photo courtesy of PublicDomainPictures.net

THURSDAY, OCTOBER 31 and FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 1 and SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 2: Don’t get scared, now: It’s time for Halloween!

Rooted in a centuries-old Gaelic and Irish seasonal festival known as Samhain, Halloween is considered by many to be the only time of year that spirits can roam the earth: From Samhain to Mexico’s Day of the Dead, world cultures celebrate the belief that at this time of year, the veil between this world and the next is particularly thin. Don’t worry, it’s not all solemn and bone-chilling, though—today’s secular Halloween also brings out bright Jack-o-lanterns, loads of candy and a pretty good excuse for adults to join in on the costuming fun with kids!

As Western cultural influences spread worldwide, Halloween has steadily been gaining global popularity—even in countries as far from North America as Japan, Australia and Africa. Western images of witches, black cats and trick-or-treating now have circled the planet. In some countries, bonfires and fireworks are common additions to nighttime trick-or-treating.

Carved turnip

A turnip carved for Hop-tu-Naa, a Celtic festival that is the celebration of the traditional Celtic festival of Samhain, observed in the Isle of Man on October 31. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

SAMHAIN: AN ANCIENT FESTIVAL REVIVED

The original Samhain marked the end of the harvest season and ushered in winter, or the “darker half” of the year, in Gaelic Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man. Legend has it that spirits could easily come to earth, and many people would leave out food and drink for the roaming entities.

Did you know? In Gaelic Ireland, guising—donning a costume—was thought to “trick” ill-intentioned spirits roaming the streets near Samhain.

In many households, ancestors were welcomed to the table with particular enthusiasm, and large meals were prepared. Multiple sites in Ireland were, and still are, associated with Samhain, and the spirits that emerge there at this time of year. Hallowed-out turnips were lit with a candle and placed in windows, their carved faces frightening bad spirits.

Today, Neopagans, Celtic Reconstructionist Pagans and Wiccans all celebrate the Samhain, in slightly varying ways. Samhain emerged as part of the late 19th century Celtic Revival, and most keep the widespread traditions of lighting bonfires, paying homage to ancestors, welcoming the “darker” season and preparing feasts with apples, nuts, meats, seasonal vegetables and mulled wines.

ALLHALLOWTIDE: THE CHRISTIAN TRIDUUM OF HALLOWEEN

The triduum of Halloween, “Allhallowtide,” recalls deceased spirits, saints (hallows) and martyrs alike, in one collective commemoration. The word Halloween is of Christian origin, and many Christians visit graveyards during this time to pray and place flowers and candles at the graves of their deceased loved ones. The two days following All Hallows Eve—Hallowmas, or All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day—pay homage to the souls that Christians believe are now with God.

Dia de los Muertos dancer in dress and facepaint, man with instrument

A Mexican folkloric dancer performs to live mariachi music at a Dia de los Muertos event. Photo by CSUF Photos, courtesy of Flickr

Did you know? Practices vary widely across the world’s many Christian denominations today. While Catholics, Anglicans and many other denominations retain the fuller liturgical celebration in their calendars, many Protestant and evangelical churches long ago abandoned the traditional three-day cycle.

However, “Allhallowtide” is a Christian term that emerged in the 1400s to describe this three-day period. For centuries, it was an important part of parish life in many regions. And, while most American Protestant churches have abandoned the larger observance, others are discovering that this opportunity to remember the “saints” can become a rich part of congregational life, especially in Latino communities.

DIA DE LOS MUERTOS

Vibrant decorations for Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, mark towns in Mexico and Latin American communities far and wide, as the lives of the departed are celebrated with vigor. The full festival of Dia de los Muertos typically lasts two or three days (in some regions, customs begin on October 31), and traditionally, November 1 pays tribute to the souls of children and the innocent while November 2 is dedicated to deceased adult souls. In Mexico, relatives adorn altars and graves with elaborate garlands and wreaths, crosses made of flowers and special foods. Families gather in cemeteries, where pastors bestow prayers upon the dead. For children, Dia de los Muertos celebrations mean candy like sugar skulls and once-a-year treats; music and dancing delight celebrants of all ages.

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Categories: International Observances

Diwali: Mega Hindu festival of lights spans the globe

Dark night sky, dusk, colorful fireworks over body of water

Diwali celebrations in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India. Photo by Sriram Jagannathan, courtesy of Flickr

SUNDAY, OCTOBER 27: Happy Diwali!

Today begins Diwali, the ancient Hindu festival of lights. In recognition of the triumph of light over darkness, Diwali bears great significance for Hindus, Jains and Sikhs alike; as awareness of Indian culture spreads, major celebrations now are hosted around the world.

This year, the Washington Post reports, more than 1 billion people will be celebrating Diwali: from celebrations in Chicago to Edinburgh to Stockhom to Dubai, the colors and culture of India span the globe. (But, please note: Dates and spellings of Diwali may vary by country and region. This festival is also called Deepavali, or Dipavali.)

DIWALI PREPARATIONS: A 5-DAY NEW YEAR CELEBRATION

Diya lamp in darkness, Hindu

A Hindu diya lamp for Diwali. Photo courtesy of Pixabay

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, 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. During this five-day period, the old year closes and a new year is rung in.

In the two days prior to Diwali, celebrants wrap up their shopping, bake sweets and bathe with fragrant oils. On Diwali, excitement builds as evening approaches. While donning new clothing, diyas (earthen lamps, filled with oil) are lit, prayers are offered to deities and many households welcome Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and prosperity who is believed to roam the earth on Diwali night. To receive the blessings of Lakshmi tonight means a good year ahead. The night’s extravaganza is a sky ablaze with fireworks. And, families gather for a feast of sweets and desserts.

The day following Diwali is Padwa, honoring the mutual love between husbands and wives. The next day, Bhai Duj, celebrates the sister-brother bond. On Bhai Duj, women and girls gather to perform puja and prayers for the well-being of their brothers, and siblings engage in gift-giving and the sharing of a meal.

ATMAN: PURE AND INFINITE

Several Hindu schools of philosophy teach the existence of something beyond the physical body and mind: something pure and infinite, known as atman. Diwali revels in the victory of good over evil, in the deeper meaning of higher knowledge dissipating ignorance and hope prevailing over despair. When truth is realized, one can see past ignorance and into the oneness of all things.

DIWALI AMONG JAINS AND SIKHS

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.

Interested in coloring pages, crafts, printables and a how-to video of the Jai Ho dance? Find it all and more at Activity Village.

Find a kid-friendly approach to teaching about Diwali from National Geographic.

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Categories: Faiths of IndiaHindu

Columbus Day: Italian-Americans and Native Americans both celebrate

Columbus Day parade in San Francisco

A float in an earlier Columbus Day Italian Heritage Parade in San Francisco. (Used via Wikimedia Commons.)

MONDAY, OCTOBER 14: All year long, celebrations across North America reflect the colorful facets of America’s growing cultural diversity.

But few holidays expose the friction in U.S. history as much as Columbus Day, which celebrates the arrival of Christopher Columbus in what is now called the Americas in 1492. For more than a century, the holiday has been championed by Italian-Americans as showcasing their many contributions to the U.S. But some regions of the country now decline to celebrate this national observance, questioning whether Columbus’s arrival is something Native people should celebrate.

PEW RESEARCH MAPS THE DIVIDE

NEW IN 2019, Pew Research has published an in-depth look at the varying approaches to this annual milestone across the U.S.

The Pew report begins: “Depending on where you live and whom you work for, Columbus Day may be a paid day off, another holiday entirely, or no different from any regular Monday. Columbus Day, the second Monday in October, is one of the most inconsistently celebrated U.S. holidays. It’s one of 10 official federal holidays, which means federal workers get a paid day off. And because federal offices will be closed, so will most banks and the bond markets that trade in U.S. government debt (though the stock markets will remain open). Beyond that, it’s a grab bag.”

Here is a link to the entire Pew report—with accompanying maps so you can see how your part of the U.S. compares with others.

2 CITIES BY THE BAY CELEBRATE 2 WAYS

Proud Italian-American communities on the East Coast host parades, parties and other events—but San Francisco claims to host the nation’s oldest and biggest Columbus-related bash. In fact, the celebration started several days ago around the Bay Area. The San Francisco-based group claims that in 1869: “San Francisco’s first Columbus Day Celebration marked the first time in America that Italian-Americans gathered and held a parade to honor the accomplishments of Italians, as well as the first Italian-American, Christopher Columbus.”

That first parade “took place in San Francisco’s downtown featuring the bands and marching units of Italian fraternal organizations, including the Garibaldi Guard, Swiss Guards and Lafayette Guards. Four floats were showcased: the first hosted the statue of Christopher Columbus, the second featured two girls representing Isabella of Spain and America, the third depicted the Santa Maria with a sailor dressed as Christopher Columbus; and the fourth honored Italian gardeners featuring their agricultural achievements.”

In nearby Berkeley, California, an alternative celebration, Indigenous People’s Day or Native American Day took off in the 1990s.

 

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Categories: AnniversaryNational Observances

Canada kicks off the great Northern Thanksgiving season

Shopping for pumpkins at an open market in Ottawa. (Photo by Lars Plougmann, released via Wikimedia Commons.)

Shopping for pumpkins in Ottawa. (Photo by Lars Plougmann via Wikimedia Commons.)

MONDAY, OCTOBER 14: Canadian Thanksgiving memories go back many centuries—as do the stories more familiar to Americans. After surviving dire conditions on the Atlantic, Canadian expeditionary groups in the late 1500s and early 1600s celebrated what amounted to a Thanksgiving. However, more recent celebrations literally hopped all over the calendar—landing as early as April before settling on the second Monday in October by national decree in 1957.

Today, official histories of the holiday in Canada stress that this is a harvest festival echoing traditions of the nation’s indigenous peoples. The Canadian Encyclopedia begins its entry this way: “Indigenous peoples in North America have a history of holding communal feasts in celebration of the fall harvest that predates the arrival of European settlers.”

Canada’s most-read newspaper, The Globe and Mail, sums it up for readers this way: “British explorer Martin Frobisher is credited with holding the first Canadian Thanksgiving–in Newfoundland–to mark his safe return from an unsuccessful search for the Northwest Passage. But aboriginal groups—both in Canada and the United States—have long traditions of holding Thanksgiving ceremonies to commemorate abundant harvests.”

It’s Not Just about Turkey Anymore!

Most Canadian families expect turkey, mashed potatoes and other autumn side dishes. One Canadian poll says as many as three-quarters of families plan to have some turkey. But, various Canadian journalists also have been pointing out: A growing number of Canadians are proud to call themselves “foodies”—and some holiday dinners will feature alternative dishes.

One Canadian food magazine announced last week that noted Peruvian-Canadian chef Ricardo Valverde will feature special Canadian (October 8) and American Thanksgiving (November 22) dinners this year at his Vancouver restaurant—serving some of his Peruvian specialities. For Canadian Thanksgiving, this year, he’s serving arroz con pato (rice with duck).

That freedom to indulge in a wide range of foods has been building for years. Since the 1960s, the week-long Kitchener-Waterloo Oktoberfest in Ontario has been scheduled to coincide with Canadian Thanksgiving. Canadians claim it is the second-largest Oktoberfest in the world, drawing 700,000 visitors each year. Care to learn more? Here’s the event’s official website.

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Categories: International Observances

Sukkot: Jews’ temporary structures mark ancient harvest festival

sukkah for Sukkot

Eating brunch in a sukkah. Photo by sikeri, courtesy of Flickr

SUNSET SUNDAY, OCTOBER 13: Following the Jewish High Holidays each year, Jews enter a joyous “Season of our Rejoicing:” It is time for Sukkot, an ancient harvest festival.

Tradition calls on Jews to construct and then dwell in temporary structures, called sukkahs, during Sukkot, in memory of the ancient Israelites’ living quarters during their 40 years in the desert. As Sukkot is, agriculturally, a harvest festival, many sukkahs are decorated with autumn crops. In the U.S., it is not uncommon to see sukkahs decorated with gourds, pumpkins, squash and other foods associated with fall. Traditionally work is halted on the first and second days of Sukkot, with the days in between reserved for relaxation (though work is permitted on these days).

DIY 101: HOW TO BUILD A SUKKAH

Though sukkahs may look vastly different, the builders try to abide by specific rules. A sukkah must have at least 2.5 walls covered with a material that cannot be blown away by wind; the roof must be made of something that grew from the ground and was cut off, such as tree branches, corn stalks or wooden boards. The roof materials of a sukkah must be left loose, so that rain can get in and, preferably, the stars can be seen at nighttime. (Learn more from Judaism 101.)

Looking for autumn recipes, tips on building a sukkah and more? Check out the resources at My Jewish Learning, Chabad.org and Aish.com.

An etrog fruit, one of the Four Species. Photo by Marina, courtesy of PublicDomainPictures.net

A sukkah may be any size so long as a family can dwell in it, and many Jews spend as much time as possible in the sukkah. It is common to eat meals in the sukkah, and some Jews even choose to sleep in it.

Another custom associated with Sukkot involves the Four Species. The Four Species—the etrog (a citrus fruit native to Israel), the lulav (palm branch), aravot (two willow branches) and hadassim (three myrtle branches) are used to “rejoice before the L_rd.” With the etrog in one hand and the branches bound together in the other hand, blessings are recited. The branches are waved in all directions, to symbolize that G_d is everywhere.

Note: The two days following Sukkot are Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah, which celebrate the spiritual aspects of Sukkot and the cyclical public reading of the Torah, respectively.

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Categories: Jewish