Christians in several traditions will observe today as 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 April 3 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.
Eastern Orthodox Christians, who still use the ancient Julian calendar, begin Lent on Feb. 23 this year. However, they will join Protestants and Roman Catholics in celebrating Easter on April 12.
— James D. Davis
Today, Jan. 6, is Epiphany, the traditional “Twelfth Day of Christmas,” recalling when Christians say Jesus’ divinity was revealed.
For Western churches, especially Roman Catholic, Epiphany is Three Kings Day, when they believe the Wise Men visited the young Jesus. In South Florida, Hispanics will celebrate Three Kings Day, with floats and bands in an exuberant parade along Miami’s Calle Ocho.
For Eastern Orthodox churches, Epiphany marks Jesus’ baptism, when the Bible says a dove settled onto him and a voice from heaven declared him “my beloved son.” Some parishes, or groups of parishes, gather for a colorful “‘Blessing of the Waters” ceremony, in which youths retrieve a cross that has been thrown into a waterway.
In West Palm Beach, Greek Orthodox Bishop Alexios will perform the blessing at the Intracoastal Waterway a few steps from St. Catherine’s Church. All Eastern Orthodox churches in South Florida will take part.
In formal Epiphany observances, many parishes use incense as a fragrant reminder of the magi’s gifts to Jesus. Eastern Orthodox priests use the day to bless their baptismal fonts by dipping a cross into the water.
— James D. Davis
Christians 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, candles glow in millions of Jewish households as they start the celebration of 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 hanukkiah, a small, eight-branched menorah, at home, while singing seasonal songs such as Maoz Tzur, or ‘‘Rock of Ages.” One candle is lit the first night; then another 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
Today starts Advent, the season of preparation for Christmas. Advent, which is marked by the four Sundays before that day, 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 many 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. The 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.
— James D. Davis
How did Halloween get its name? From All Saints Day, which falls on today (Nov. 1). The original name was All Hallows Day, or Hallowmas, which means pretty much the same. It’s shortened from the official name, the Solemnity of All Saints.
The root of the observance came from martyrdom, especially in the first five centuries of the Christian era. Churches began honoring members who were killed for their faith, saying Eucharist at their graves on the anniversaries of their deaths; but the task became harder as more died. So by the fourth century, they established one day to honor them all.
The holiday took its present form in the eighth century, when Pope Gregory III declared Nov. 1 as the day to remember the apostles, saints and martyrs. The day was picked to supplant Samhain, a Celtic festival for the end of summer, when the dead returned to visit. Many pagans reacted by simply moving their observance to the previous night. Hence the name All Hallows Evening, or Halloween.
All Saints Day is observed not only in Roman Catholic circles but also Anglican, Lutheran, Methodist and Wesleyan churches. Whether they see deceased members as especially holy or not, believers emphasize a spiritual bond between Christians in this world and the next.
— James D. Davis
The somber High Holy Days, which ended on Oct. 4, give way tonight to Sukkot, the colorful Feast of Tabernacles. One of the three “Pilgrim Festivals” — the others are Passover and Shavuot — Sukkot recalls the Israelites’ travels in the Sinai desert after their liberation from slavery in Egypt.
The eight-day festival takes its name from the sukkah , a hut made by many Jewish families and synagogues. Loosely thatched and crudely built, the sukkah reminds Jews of their wandering ancestors’ meager shelters.
Fruits and flowers are hung from the sukkah rafters, recalling the festival’s other significance: gratitude to God for the fall harvest in the Holy Land, for which Israelis still celebrate it. Each morning of Sukkot, traditional Jews recite a blessing while holding four kinds of Israeli plants: a lulav or palm frond, an etrog or citron, and branches of myrtle and willow.
Sukkot has been called the Jewish Thanksgiving and may even have been its model. The American Pilgrims were avid students of the Hebrew Scriptures, even comparing their crossing of the Atlantic to the Israelite crossing of the Red Sea. The Pilgrims may well have adapted Sukkot to the New World as well.
The seventh day of Sukkot is Hoshana Rabba, or Great Help. In traditional synagogues on this day, the congregation takes the lulav and etrog in a procession of seven circuits, singing prayers for salvation. Some Jews call this day the “little Yom Kippur,” one more chance to gain God’s favor.
The last day of Sukkot is Shemini Atzeret, the Eighth Day of Solemn Assembly. It is a time to pray for rain in the Holy Land to assure good crops. It is also one of four times during the year for Yizkor memorial prayers honoring the dead.
Yet another event is sometimes celebrated on the same day in many synagogues: Simhat Torah, the jubilant Rejoicing Over the Law. On Simhat Torah, the last lines are read from the giant pulpit Torah scroll in each synagogue. Then the scroll is rewound for another annual cycle of readings — and the rabbi carries it in procession around the synagogue, amid singing and dancing.
— James D. Davis