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Holiday Almanac: Epiphany is today

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Three Kings painting in the office of Epiphany School, Miami.

Student-made paint of the magi in the office of Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic school, Miami. (Photo by Jim Davis)

Today is Epiphany Sunday, also known as the Twelfth Day of Christmas. Epiphany recalls when Christians say Jesus’ divinity was revealed. However, different churches use different symbols.

The day is also known as Three Kings Day, when the Wise Men visited the young Jesus. Hispanic Catholics in South Florida bring out floats and bands in an exuberant parade along Miami’s Calle Ocho.

For Eastern Orthodox churches, Epiphany marks Jesus’ baptism, when a dove settled onto him and a voice from heaven declared him “my beloved son.” Orthodox priests use the day to bless their baptismal fonts by dipping a cross into the water.

Many Eastern Orthodox parishes, taking advantage of South Florida’s warm weather, gather in West Palm Beach for a colorful “Blessing of the Waters” ceremony, in which youths retrieve a cross that has been thrown into the Intracoastal Waterway.

Eastern Orthodox churches also use incense during their liturgy as a fragrant reminder of the magi’s gifts.

— Jim Davis



Written by Jim Davis

January 6, 2019 at 1:00 pm

Holiday Almanac: The real St. Nicholas

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Today is St. Nicholas Day, honoring the wise, generous saint who inspired the Santa Claus of western Christmas celebrations. His day is often merged with Christmas, but he was a church leader in his own right.

Nicholas was the bishop of fourth-century Myra, Asia Minor, in what is now Turkey. He is recognized by historians for debating an opponent named Arius at the pivotal Council of Nicaea in 325, helping establish church beliefs about the nature of Christ.

It’s the legends about Nicholas, however, that fix him in Christian culture.

  • He was known for giving food and money to the poor. One man received three bags of gold, providing dowries for his three daughters. Nicholas’ generosity made him the patron saint of pawnbrokers, and even inspired the symbol of three golden balls of modern pawnshops.
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St. Nicholas icon at St. Nicholas Episcopal Church, Pompano Beach, Fla. (Photo by James Davis)

  • Nicholas is said to have appeared miraculously to sailors who were trying to sail through a storm in the Mediterranean, guiding them to shore. Greek boasts even today carry icons of Nicholas, which they see as their patron saint.
  • He called on King Constantine to acquit three officers who were condemned to death, and once even stopped an executioner from slaying a man he believed to be unjustly sentenced.  The action made him the patron saint of inmates.
  • In one gruesome tale, Nicholas learned of an innkeeper who murdered three boys. He confronted the man, who broke down and confessed. Then the good bishop resurrected the boys, becoming the patron saint of children.

Next to the Virgin Mary herself, in fact, Nicholas is the most venerated saint — not only among Catholics but Protestants and Eastern Orthodox Christians as well.

The saint’s name changed in the West largely because of Dutch immigrants to New York. “St. Nicholas” is “Sinterklaas” in Dutch, gradually morphing into “Santa Claus.” Among his other names are Father Christmas in the United Kingdom, Papai Noel in Brazil, Dun Che Lao Ren (Christmas Old Man) in China, Julenissen (Christmas Gnome) in Norway, and Weihnachtsmann (Christmas Man) in Germany.

In America, the Rev. Clement Clark Moore’s 19th century poem A Visit from St. Nicholas turned him into a sleigh-driving elf. Later that century, newspaper artist Thomas Nast pictured Nicholas as a bulbous, red-suited North Pole resident, keeping lists of naughty and nice children.

Nowadays, his Santa-fied persona is everywhere — on cards, in songs, on storefronts, in ads and commercials, even in Christmas pageants that deal with the birth of Jesus.

The Rev. Michael McNally, a Catholic historian, finds the cultural appropriation of Nicholas ironic.

“Over the centuries, the church has tried to baptize secular customs,” McNally told the South Florida Sun Sentinel newspaper. “Here is a religious saint who has been secularized.”

— James D. Davis

Written by Jim Davis

December 6, 2018 at 1:00 pm

Holiday Almanac: Advent lights the way

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Today is the first Sunday of 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 in South Florida have adopted the wreath as well.

Another Advent custom is the Jesse Tree, often decorated by children in church schools. The tree, which in South Florida is often mahogany or black olive, 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.



Written by Jim Davis

December 2, 2018 at 1:00 pm

Rosh Hashana signals New Year — and season of repentance

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Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year, started at sundown Sunday, Sept. 9, for the world’s 14.5 million Jews. Rosh Hashana, starting the Hebrew year 5779, begins the solemn 10-day period known as the High Holy Days.

Also called Yamim Noraim, or Days of Awe, the holy days are a pause in time when the faithful fast and pray for pardon from their sins over the past year. Jewish tradition says God scrutinizes each person, waiting to see who is worthy of good or bad fortune for the next year.

Liberal Jews likewise use the High Holy Days as a time to review their lives and resolve to be better persons. Area synagogues often rent community auditoriums to handle the overflow of worshipers who seldom attend temple otherwise.

During the season, Jews wish one another L’Shanah Tovah Tikatevu, or “May you be inscribed for a good year.” Many also keep an edible tradition of apples dipped in honey, a tasty hope for a “sweet New Year.”

The High Holy Days end this year starting at sundown Sept. 18 with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. That day-long series of services ends with a final blast from the ram’s horn, closing God’s books and sealing everyone’s fate for the year.

— James D. Davis


Written by Jim Davis

September 10, 2018 at 3:28 am

Back from the dead: Easter dawns today for Christians

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Christians celebrate today as Easter, commemorating the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The greatest holiday of the Christian year, Easter ratifies for believers the claim of Jesus to be the Son of God.


Jesus catches soldiers literally off guard in the Easter window at St. Ann Church, West Palm Beach. (Photo by Jim Davis)

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.”

The significance of Easter is not only the resurrection of Jesus, but the hope that he can grant eternal life to those who trust and follow him. “Because I live, you shall live also,” he said.

For traditional churches, the change in liturgical colors is striking. During the Lenten season, which begins with Ash Wednesday (Feb. 18 this year), altars and vestments took on purple, the color of royalty. The color hearkens to the story of Jesus’ suffering, in which Roman soldiers draped him in a purple robe to mock his claim of kingship.

On Easter, however, the cloths are all changed to white — symbolizing joy, glory and triumph — as believers rejoice over Christ’s resurrection. The color predominates even in church floral decorations, with white, trumpet-like Easter lilies.

Sunrise services are common Easter Sunday celebrations. The events are often sponsored by two or more churches, or even by whole ministerial associations.

But Easter still lies ahead for the world’s quarter-billion 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 April 8 this year.

— Jim Davis

Written by Jim Davis

April 1, 2018 at 11:43 am

Passover celebrates freedom to worship

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Stack of matzoh used in Passover; photo by Alex Ringer via Freeimages.com.

Passover, called the oldest festival of freedom, starts at sundown today for the world’s Jews. The eight-day holiday dates back some 34 centuries, recounting the deliverance of the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt.

As the story is told in the biblical book of Exodus, the pharaoh rejected the prophet Moses’ demand to release the people, bringing a wave of 10 supernatural plagues on the land. The Nile River turned to blood, disease struck humans and livestock, vermin multiplied, the sky rained hail mixed with fire, and darkness struck the land for three days.

The last plague was the Angel of Death, who struck down 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 the angel “pass over” those homes.

In modern Jewish homes, Passover starts with a ceremonial meal called a Seder on the first two nights, with foods symbolizing the Exodus story. They include a lamb shank, for the sacrificial animal; 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.

— Jim Davis


Written by Jim Davis

March 30, 2018 at 7:00 pm

Holiday Almanac: Purim, the Jewish Festival of Lots, starts tonight

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Purim05Sundown today ushers in Purim, the joyous Jewish Festival of Lots that celebrates the deliverance of the Jews from a would-be mass murderer 2,500 years ago.

The story, told in the biblical book of Esther, takes place in Persia, where many of the Jews were living in exile. There Esther, a Jewish woman, won a beauty contest and married King Ahasuerus.

Haman, the king’s prime minister, hated the Jews after Esther’s cousin Mordecai refused to bow to him. Haman persuaded the king, who was unaware Esther was Jewish, to sign an iron-clad decree for the Jews’ extermination.

After Esther bravely pled her people’s case, Ahasuerus changed his mind but could not rescind the decree. However, he issued another order allowing the Jews to defend themselves. They killed thousands of their enemies, and Haman was hanged on the gallows he had built for Mordecai.

Purim takes its name from the Hebrew word for “lots,” for the method by which Haman had decided the date of the slaughter — which became, instead, the day of the great Jewish victory.

Boisterous celebrations lift Purim above its formal status as a minor religious holiday. Synagogues and Jewish community centers often sponsor Purim festivals, with carnival rides and games. Costume parties have children dressing as their favorite Purim characters. And refreshments include hamantaschen, triangular pastries in the traditional shape of Haman’s hat.


Written by Jim Davis

February 28, 2018 at 10:46 pm

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