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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: What Christmas means

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Nativity window at St. Gregory Church in Plantation, Florida. (Photo by Jim Davis)

Believers worldwide celebrate today as Christmas, the birth of Jesus Christ, whom they worship as the unique 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 begin Christmas with Midnight Mass. Eastern Orthodox churches hold Divine Liturgy. Protestant Churches often celebrate with special cantatas and carols.

The comparatively mild South Florida climate offers opportunities for outdoor observances. 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. Exuberant Three Kings celebrations reign each year on Calle Ocho in Miami, usually on the previous Sunday.

Written by Jim Davis

December 25, 2018 at 7:30 am

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: Hanukkah, the light of freedom

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menorah pxhere 2Sundown 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 they 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

Written by Jim Davis

December 2, 2018 at 6:00 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

Holiday Almanac: Sukkot recalls dependence on God

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Torah scroll at Mullah Jacub’s Synagogue, Isfahan, Iran. Photographed by Hamed Saber via Wikimedia Commons (CC-By-2.0).

The somber High Holy Days, which ended on Sept. 19, give way today 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 other theme of the festival: 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 fruit, 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, too, may well have adapted Sukkot to the New World.

The seventh day of Sukkot is Hoshana Rabba, or Great Help. In traditional synagogues on this day, members of the congregation carry 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 South Florida temples: 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.

— Jim Davis

Written by Jim Davis

September 24, 2018 at 11:19 pm

A fresh start: Yom Kippur starts tonight for Jews

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Yom Kippur, the awesome Day of Atonement for Jews, finishes the High Holy Days starting at sundown today (Sept. 18). The holy days began at sundown Sept. 9 with Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year.

The holy days are a time to examine one’s life, repent of shortcomings and resolve to correct them. Tradition says that God holds people’s lives in the balance during these “10 Days of Repentance” before determining their fate for the coming year.

Tonight’s service features the Kol Nidre, a prayer set to sad medieval music. The prayer pleads for release from “all vows” — the translation of Kol Nidre — to God that have not been kept.

All day tomorrow, the faithful will fast and attend a succession of synagogue services, including Yizkor memorial prayers for the dead. Traditional prayers include Al Het, a list of sins whose initials form the Hebrew alphabet. As the worshiper recites the list, he strikes his chest to emphasize repentance.

Last service of the day is Neilah, signaling the closing of heaven’s gates and the sealing of everyone’s fate for another year.

Although non-Jews might view the High Holy Days as guilt-ridden, rabbis say the observance actually shows divine mercy. They point out that het, usually translated “sin,” is an archery term that means to miss the mark. And shuva, repentance, is almost identical to teshuva, to turn — as in returning to right living.

— James D. Davis

Written by Jim Davis

September 18, 2018 at 10:59 pm

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