As told in the biblical book of Exodus, the pharaoh rejected the prophet Moses’ demand to release the people, bringing a wave of supernatural plagues on the land. The last plague was death for the firstborn of every Egyptian household in one night. The Israelites escaped death by dashing lambs’ blood on their doorposts — a sign of faith that made God “pass over” those homes.
In modern traditional households, the eight-day festival starts with a ceremonial meal called a Seder on the first two nights, according to a program book known as a Haggaday. Foods on the Seder plate symbolize the Exodus story, including a lamb shank; a piece of bitter herbs such as horseradish, for the bitterness of slavery; a bowl of saltwater, for the tears of oppression; and a mix of apples, cinnamon and wine, for the mortar used in the Egyptian bricks.
Also on the Seder plate are a roasted egg and leafy vegetables, for the springtime occasion of Passover; and the hard, unleavened bread called matzoh, for the Israelites’ haste in evacuating Egypt.
— JAMES D. DAVIS
Christians celebrate today as Easter, commemorating the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Easter, the greatest holiday of the Christian year, ratifies for believers the claim of Jesus to be the Son of God.
As related in the New Testament books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, the body of Jesus was wrapped and buried in a rocky tomb near Jerusalem. Women came three days later to embalm the corpse, but found it missing. Jesus then began appearing to various groups of his followers, with the commission to “make disciples of all nations.”
Sunrise services are common Easter Sunday celebrations, especially at the public beaches of South Florida. The events are often sponsored by two or more churches, or even by whole ministerial associations.
But Easter still lies ahead for the area’s estimated 10,000 Eastern Orthodox Christians, who reckon some holy days by the ancient Julian calendar instead of the contemporary Gregorian calendar. Easter for the Orthodox will fall on May 1 this year.
— James D. Davis
Christians today mourn the death of Jesus Christ as Good Friday. Despite his agonizing death on a cross, the holiday is called “Good” because Christians believe the death was a sacrifice for all humanity’s sins.
“The lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,” the New Testament calls him.
In Catholic churches, the traditional Good Friday service includes the Stations of the Cross, a series of meditations based on the 14 traditional events between Jesus’ condemnation in a Roman court and his burial. The Stations typically are represented with plaques or bas-reliefs around the church auditorium.
Catholics also have a Veneration of the Cross ceremony, during which churchgoers approach the altar to show respect before a cross, often with a bow and a kiss.
Sometimes observed by ecumenical Protestants is Tre Ore, a three-hour service examining each of the “Seven Last Words” Jesus uttered from the cross. The service is useful for having seven or more ministers take part.
Another type of service is Tenebrae, in which a church is slowly darkened to illustrate Jesus’ death, then relighted to show his resurrection on Easter Sunday.
— James D. Davis
Christians celebrate today as Palm Sunday, the start of Holy Week on the church calendar. Palm Sunday takes its name from an informal welcome given Jesus as he entered Jerusalem on the last week before his crucifixion.
According to the Gospel accounts, Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, with people paving the street before him with coats and palm fronds. That week he preached in the Temple and celebrated Passover with his disciples. Their observance of the Seder, the ritual meal of Passover, has become known in churches as the Last Supper.
Churches commonly celebrate Palm Sunday with special musical programs and Easter pageants. They often pass out palm leaves, sometimes tied into the shape of a cross. In Catholic and some Episcopal churches, extra palm leaves are burned and the ashes saved for Ash Wednesday the following year.
Holy Week ends with Maundy Thursday, commemorating the institution of the Holy Communion ritual; Good Friday, mourning Jesus’ death; and Easter Sunday, celebrating his Resurrection.
— JAMES D. DAVIS
Boisterous Mardi Gras and Fat Tuesday celebrations give way today to Ash Wednesday, the start of six weeks of Lent. The season is a period of solemnity before Good Friday, the traditional observance of Jesus’ death, which will fall on March 25 this year.
Ash Wednesday takes its name from ashes daubed on the faithful as a sign of penitence, with the traditional words, “Remember you are dust and will return to dust.”
Lent is a somber season marked by prayer, introspection and repentance. For Catholics, it also includes fasting and abstinence from meat on Fridays for those 14 years and older.
— JAMES D. DAVIS
Believers worldwide celebrate today as Christmas, the birth of Jesus Christ, whom they worship as the Son of God. The founding events are set in Israel of 20 centuries ago.
As told in the New Testament books of Matthew and Luke, a Jewish couple named Mary and Joseph traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem for a Roman census. Rebuffed from every inn in the crowded village, they settled in a stable, where Jesus was born.
In nearby fields, angels announced the birth to shepherds, who rushed to the stable to worship the child. And from the East, magi or wise men followed a special star to Jesus’ home and offered gifts of gold, incense and rare spice.
Roman Catholic churches began Christmas with Midnight Mass; Eastern Orthodox churches hold Divine Liturgy. Protestant Churches often celebrate with carols and special cantatas.
Church youths like to stage “Living Nativity” scenes, recreating the first Christmas — a custom said to have been founded by St. Francis of Assisi. A few churches unpack high-tech gear or rent civic auditoriums for elaborately staged pageants.
Christmas traditionally was from Dec. 25 to Jan. 6 — the “Twelve Days of Christmas” in the carol of the same name. That tradition still thrives among Latin Americans, who will celebrate Jan. 6 as Three Kings Day, when they believe the Wise Men arrived in Bethlehem.
— James Davis
Tonight today starts Hanukkah, the eight-day Jewish Feast of Lights. Hanukkah, whose name is Hebrew for ‘‘Dedication,” recalls the Jews’ recapture of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem from a pagan tyrant.
The founding events took place 165 years before the traditional date of Jesus’ birth, when Israel was ruled by a Greco-Syrian king named Antiochus Epiphanes. The king banned Judaism and had a pig — a ritually unclean animal — sacrificed in the Jerusalem Temple.
The Israelites finally revolted for freedom of religion, led by the five Maccabee brothers. They miraculously defeated the Greek army and set out to rededicate the Temple, but found only one day’s supply of oil for the Great Menorah or candelabrum. In the story’s second miracle, the oil lasted for eight days, long enough to purify a new supply.
Jewish families commemorate the victory by lighting a small, eight-branched menorah at home, while singing seasonal songs such as Maoz Tzur, or “Rock of Ages.” One more candle is lighted each night, until by the last night, the whole candelabrum is ablaze.
Hanukkah also features festive foods: latkes, or potato pancakes for East European Jews; sufganiot, or doughnuts filled with jelly or chocolate for Mideastern Jews. Both are deep-fried in oil, recalling the miracle of the Temple lamp.
A more subtle holiday custom is the dreidel, a four-sided top that children play with. The sides of the dreidel have Hebrew letters: Nun, Gimel, Hay and Shin. The letters form an acrostic for a sentence: Nes gadol hayah sham, or “A great miracle happened there.”
— James D. Davis