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Holiday Almanac: Advent, looking toward Christmas

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

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

Written by Jim Davis

November 30, 2014 at 9:00 am

Holiday Almanac: Halloween is gone, All Saints Day is here

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Candles on a cemetery on All Saints Day in Poland. (Michal Zacharzewski via sxc.hu)

Candles on a cemetery on All Saints Day in Poland. (Michal Zacharzewski via sxc.hu)

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



Written by Jim Davis

November 1, 2014 at 4:17 am

Holiday Almanac: Easter for Eastern Orthodox Christians

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The world’s quarter-billion Eastern Orthodox Christians will begin celebrating tonight as Easter, the day Jesus rose from the dead, a week after their fellow believers in Roman Catholic and Protestant churches.

A typical Eastern Orthodox cross, worn by a priest at Christ the Savior Cathedral, Miami Lakes, Fla. Photo by James D. Davis.

A typical Eastern Orthodox cross, worn by a priest at Christ the Savior Cathedral, Miami Lakes, Fla. Photo by James D. Davis.

The founding events are the same: Three days after Jesus’ corpse was entombed, women came to embalm it, but found the tomb open and empty. Jesus then appeared to them, then to his disciples, then to crowds of hundreds, before ascending into heaven.

For most Orthodox, the climax starts late tonight with the Resurrection Service. 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 and return for the Pascha, the Easter liturgy.

Eastern churches — Greek, Russian, Antiochian, Coptic and other branches — usually celebrate Easter a week or two after their Protestant and Catholic brethren. They reckon the date after the Julian calendar under a formula no longer used by Western churches. This year, however, the eastern and western dates coincide.

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


— James D. Davis


Written by Jim Davis

April 19, 2014 at 9:00 am

Holiday Almanac: Passover, the oldest freedom festival

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Seder plate photo by Robert Couse-Baker via Flickr Creative Commons

Seder plate photo by Robert Couse-Baker via Flickr Creative Commons

Passover, called the oldest festival of freedom, starts at sundown today (Monday, April 14, 2014) for the world’s 13 million Jews. The eight-day holiday dates back some 34 centuries, recounting the deliverance of the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt.

As told in the biblical book of Exodus, the pharaoh rejected the prophet Moses’ demand to release the people, bringing a wave of plagues on the land. 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, the festival starts with a ceremonial meal called a Seder on the first two nights, with foods symbolizing the Exodus story. The foods include 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



Written by Jim Davis

April 14, 2014 at 5:21 am

Mormons holding open house for new South Florida temple

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The new Mormon temple in South Florida will be open for free tours through April 19. (Photo: James Davis)

The new Mormon temple in South Florida will be open for free tours through April 19. (Photo: James Davis)

For months, drivers on I-75 in South Florida have looked curiously at the building with a spire topped by a golden angel holding a trumpet. Now they have a chance to look inside — at least until mid-April, when the doors close to the public.

The building is the newest temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, better known as the Mormon Church. The temple will be the setting for “sacramental worship” for the 25,000 Mormons in South Florida. And the church is offering free tours of the temple before it’s dedicated in May.

Mormon temples are different from the church’s 20,000 “chapels” around the world. Chapels resemble regular Protestant churches, with singing, preaching and Communion service. They’re open to the public.

The 142 temples — the Fort Lauderdale building is number 143 — are reserved for special ceremonies like baptism and marital “Sealings,” which are believed to affect a person’s eternal destiny. After dedication, temples are only for Mormons in good standing.

“Temples are a central part of LDS life and culture,” said Elder William Walker, who runs all the group’s temples around the world, during a recent press tour of the 30,500-square-foot structure. “We believe that the promises and covenants we make in a temple have implications for eternity.”

Twelve stone oxen support the baptistry in the temple. (Photo courtesy of Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints)

Twelve stone oxen support the baptistry in the temple. (Photo courtesy of Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints)

What can you see at the temple? One thing will be the distinctive steepled Mormon design, which will still blend with local buildings. The structure is covered with precast, sand-colored concrete panels, with leafy patterns in the windows inspired by South Florida foliage.

The angel atop the spire is Moroni, known to believers as the celestial being who guided their prophet Joseph Smith. Covered in 22-carat gold leaf, the statue rises just two inches short of the legal 100-foot limit.

The 16.82 acres feature palms, ponds and fountains, set far back from the access road. Walker demurred on the total price tag, but he agreed with early forecasts that it would cost somewhere north of $10 million.

The tropical look is repeated inside, in carpets and murals. But many of the walls and the columns are white, often gilt-edged at the capitals and the junctures of the walls and ceilings.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Jim Davis

April 5, 2014 at 9:00 am

Holiday Almanac: Purim, Jewish victory over arch-enemy

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Jews worldwide celebrate Purim today. The joyous Jewish Festival of Lots celebrates their deliverance from a would-be mass murderer 2,500 years ago.

Pastries like this one, called hamantaschen, are common treats for Purim. (Photo: eran chesnutt via sxc.hu)

Pastries like this one, called hamantaschen, are common treats for Purim. (Photo: eran chesnutt via sxc.hu)

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. Because of this, 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 in 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. Jewish community centers often sponsor Purim festivals, with carnival rides and games. Synagogues hold costume parties, with children dressing as their favorite Purim characters. And refreshments include hamantaschen, triangular pastries in the traditional shape of Haman’s hat.

— James D. Davis

Written by Jim Davis

March 16, 2014 at 4:08 am

‘Christmas Near the Beach’: Living room festival — for several thousand people

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Deena McDaniel buddies up with daughters Abby, left, and Rosey. All three will be in Christmas Near the Beach. (Photo: James D. Davis)

Santa is invited. So are some hip-hoppers, gospel singers and ballet dancers. Oh, and you are, too.

That’ll be Christmas Near the Beach, a flamboyant blend of music, dance, comedy and worship. The free festival is planned for 4-9 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 14, at ArtsPark in the heart of Hollywood, Fla.

“Everyone wants to have people for Christmas in their living room, but they can’t,” says Deena McDaniel, producer of the seventh annual Yuletide festival. She then grins and waves at the 2,400-square-foot stage at ArtsPark. “So let’s have it in my living room!”

Holding forth at the circular park at U.S. 1 and Hollywood Boulevard, Christmas Near the Beach will include a sampling of music and performance styles from around South Florida. Among them will be hip-hoppers Justin Phillips and Mr. E; the Overflow Band, a Spanish praise and worship group; St. Nick and the Florida Sunshine Band, a marching band; the Pursell Family Band, bluegrass gospel; and Sensere, a 1950s-style gospel group with horns and singers.

Also there will be Expressions of Joy, a dance studio for which McDaniel an instructor. They’ll perform excerpts of their Christmas ballet A Star Shall Come Forth. And they’ll do an excerpt from their original ballet based on The Chronicles of Narnia, by C.S. Lewis.

The biggest performance will be a flash mob of 200-300 dancers, choreographed by McDaniel, who shared the moves via YouTube.


Deena McDaniel shows the “Grinchy” mask she’ll wear in a play at Christmas Near the Beach. (Photo: James D. Davis)

McDaniel herself will reprise her Grinchy Got Saved performance, in which she dresses and masks as a parody of Dr. Seuss’ sneering green character. She’ll also perform an athletic, gospel-oriented dance called Only One Roadway, wearing mime makeup that, she confesses, some children have found scary.

Christmas Near the Beach will offer other trappings of South Florida festivals as well: hot dogs, fried Oreo cookies, a Tacky Sweater Contest, arts and crafts for kids, and a classic car show (St. Nick will even arrive in one of them). You’ll also have a chance to win a Christmas tree in a free raffle.

The festival moved last December from its original home on Hollywood Beach, where it got about 1,000 people each year. Last year the crowd tripled, McDaniel said, and this year she gleefully expects 10,000.

But Christmas Near the Beach will ignore the reason for the season. After his big entrance, St. Nick will kneel before the Baby Jesus at a live Nativity scene. Also featured will be a message by Pastor Al Pino of McDaniel’s home church, Palm Vista Community Church in Miami Lakes.

The variety of the acts reflects the variety of the dozen participating churches, McDaniel says: Haitian, Hispanic and African American as well as Anglo. She says the audience itself will include about 50 congregations.

If Christmas is the right time for such a festival, Deena McDaniel is the right person to produce it. Besides her work with Expressions of Joy, she leads a fitness class at Memorial Hospital in Hollywood and has worked as an adjunct professor of cardio and Pilates at Barry University in Miami Shores. She also holds a degree in journalism from the University of Oklahoma and worked for 10 years as a DJ in her former hometown of Camden, Mo.


Two samples of the glass starfish ornaments for sale, to benefit Christmas Near the Beach. (Photo: James D. Davis)

Her two youngest daughters seem to be following in her nimble footsteps. Rosey, 12, has a speaking part as a “Who” in the Grinch play. She’ll also dance in the flash mob, as will sister Abby, 10.

Abby has her own vocabulary in talking about Christmas Near the Beach. “Super-extra-awesome-amazing,” she says with a smile.

Although the festival is free, McDaniel plans to pass the plate for the first time this year to defray the $11,000 price. Most of the cost is carried by sponsorship and donations, she says.

This year, the program will get help from another source: Hollywood Hot Glass, a glass-blowing workshop based at ArtsPark. Director Brenna Baker will sell glass starfish-shaped Christmas ornaments for $20 each, with proceeds to benefit Christmas Near the Beach.

Christmas Near the Beach is also getting coverage from Christian media, including radio stations WAY-FM, Reach-FM, and the GraceNet Internet broadcast. At least two secular newspapers, the Hollywood Gazette and the South Florida Sun Sentinel, have also shown interest.

How to know if Christmas Near the Beach is a success? Here, McDaniel tears up. “Whenever the gospel is preached, it’s a success. Being big doesn’t mean you’re faithful. God says to share the gospel and let him do the work.”

Then her bright smile returns. “But big is OK, too. I’ll take big.”

For more info, check out the Christmas Near the Beach website.

James D. Davis

Written by Jim Davis

December 13, 2013 at 3:21 am

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