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Holiday Almanac: Hanukkah, the Festival of Dedication

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For Hanukkah, the menorah has two extra branches, for the eight days of the holiday. (Photo courtesy of Pixabay.com)

Tonight 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 ound 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


Written by Jim Davis

December 12, 2017 at 7:55 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Holiday Almanac: Advent, the season of Christmas

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Advent candle and wreath, by jruppit on sxc.hu.

Advent candle and wreath, by jruppit on sxc.hu.

Today starts Advent, the season of preparation for Christmas. Advent is celebrated mainly in traditional churches, especially Episcopal, Lutheran and Roman Catholic.

The season’s central symbol, the Advent wreath, is a leafy horizontal circle with four candles, a new one lighted each Sunday. Each church lights a large wreath, and homes of the faithful often have smaller versions. Although the custom originated in western Europe, Hispanic Catholic parishes have adopted the wreath as well.

Another Advent custom is the Jesse tree, often decorated by children in church schools. It’s is named for Isaiah 11:1: “A shoot shall come out of the stock of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.” Jesse was the father of King David, who was an ancestor of Jesus.

The Jesse tree, which doesn’t have to be a pine, is draped with homemade representations of biblical prophecies — scrolls, the Lion of Judah, seraphim, David’s harp and other symbols — believed by Christians to have foretold Jesus’ life. The tree therefore connects Christmas with centuries of scripture.

— James D. Davis

Written by Jim Davis

December 3, 2017 at 10:18 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Tongues of fire: Today is Pentecost Sunday for Christians

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Dove in a sunburst at St. Jude’s Church, Boca Raton, symbolizes the Holy Spirit. (Photo by Jim Davis)

Pentecost, the day that Christians say the Holy Spirit of God descended on the first believers, is celebrated in churches worldwide today. On this day, according to the New Testament, the apostles of Jesus saw the Spirit in the shape of “tongues of fire,” giving them power to preach and evangelize.

Taking its name from its timing, just short of 50 days after Easter Sunday, Pentecost is often called the “birthday of the church.” It’s the Christian equivalent of Shavuot, the Jewish Festival of weeks, which fell this year on Tuesday, May 30. Shavuot celebrates the giving of the law to Moses on Mount Sinai.

Catholics, Episcopalians and Lutherans celebrate Pentecost with bright red vestments and church trappings, symbolizing the flame of the Spirit.


Written by Jim Davis

June 4, 2017 at 12:00 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Laying down the law: Jews celebrate Shavuot, the Festival of Weeks

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Torah scroll at Beth Yaacov Synagogue, Geneva. Public domain via Wikimedia.

Shavuot, the Festival of Weeks, began at sundown yesterday (May 30). Shavuot celebrates the giving of the law to Moses on Mount Sinai.

The holiday is the third of the three Jewish “pilgrim festivals,” along with Passover and Sukkot, meant to recall the Israelites’ escape from slavery in Egypt and subsequent wanderings in the Sinai desert. Shavuot follows Passover by seven weeks — a “week of weeks.”

Shavuot is actually considered a triple holiday. Besides the Sinai event, Shavuot also marks the harvesting of wheat in Israel and the ripening of the first fruit in the Holy Land. Traditional Jews decorate their homes and synagogues with plants and flowers.

Synagogues observe Shavuot also with the reading of the Ten Commandments. In addition to the regular holiday service, congregations read the biblical story of Ruth, who converted to Judaism and became the grandmother of King David. Some scholars believe David was born and died on Shavuot.

In recent years, Reform and Conservative synagogues have increasingly held confirmation ceremonies on Shavuot, as their young men and women take their place in the Jewish community.


Written by Jim Davis

May 30, 2017 at 9:30 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Holiday Almanac: Easter this year unites Eastern and Western Christians

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Resurrection window at Nativity Church, Hollywood, Fla.

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.

This year, Catholics and Protestants celebrate Easter on the same day as the world’s 200 million Eastern Orthodox Christians, who reckon some holy days by the ancient Julian calendar instead of the contemporary Gregorian calendar. The two celebrations are sometimes separated by more than a month, but they coincide roughly every four years.

At most Orthodox churches, the observances start with the Resurrection Service the previous night. At midnight, the pastor carries a lighted candle in the darkened sanctuary to proclaim, “Come, receive the light from the light that is never overtaken by night …” The flame is passed on to his congregants’ candles.

Then the pastor and choir sing hymns outside the church, often leading the congregants in a procession. When they return, the church furnishings have been changed into white, for the resurrection.

The priest proclaims, “Christ is risen!”, in Greek, Russian, Arabic or other languages. The congregation then re-enters the church for the Pascha, the Easter liturgy.

Sunday worship features an Agapé service, in which the biblical story of Jesus’ resurrection is read in several languages. At the end of the service, Greek Orthodox churches bless and distribute eggs colored red, to symbolize the resurrection.


Written by Jim Davis

April 16, 2017 at 12:00 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Holiday Almanac: Good Friday, mourning Jesus’ death

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Mary weeps for the dead Christ in this window at Corpus Christi Church, Miami. (Photo by 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 hold 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.


Written by Jim Davis

April 14, 2017 at 12:00 am

Holiday Almanac: Maundy Thursday, birth of Holy Communion

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The Last Supper, in a fresco behind the altar at St. Justin Martyr Church on Key Largo, Florida.(Photo by James D. Davis)

Today (April 12, 2017) is Maundy Thursday or Holy Thursday, the anniversary of the Last Supper, which Jesus ate with his disciples before he was seized by his enemies.

At the supper, Jesus instituted the sacrament of Holy Communion, ordering his followers to “do this in remembrance of me.” The day takes its name from the Latin word mandatum, meaning “command.”

Churches typically hold Holy Communion, or the Eucharist, as it’s called in Catholic churches. Some even re-enact the Last Supper in full costume, with dialogue straight from the Bible.

Catholic priests also use Holy Thursday to wash the feet of 12 selected parishioners, repeating a practice Jesus did with his disciples at the Last Supper. The pope, too, does so with people in Rome.



Written by Jim Davis

April 13, 2017 at 12:00 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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