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Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Twelve Days of Christmas

Many people believe that the Twelve Days of Christmas occur during the days leading up to Christmas.  Actually, that is not correct.  The Twelve Days begin on Christmas Day (December 25th) and run through Epiphany (January 6th).  This period of time is also known to many of us as Christmastide, Yuletide, or Twelvetide.  But don't be confused... the twelve nights run from Christmas Eve (December 24th through January 5th.

Initially, gifts were distributed to their recipients during the course of the twelve days, as is seen in Drennon's famous song, "The Twelve Days of Christmas".  Today, however, these twelve days and nights are celebrated differently in different places around the world.  In some countries, gifts are only given on Christmas Day while in other places they are given only on the Twelfth Night or, in some places, on each of the twelve nights. 

But how did all of this get started?  Many believe that the lengthy holiday season is patterned after the Germanic Yuletide or possibly even the Roman Saturnalia, pagan customs though they may be.  We know that during the Middle Ages, these twelve days in England consisted of continuous feasting and 'merrymaking'.  Today, countries in the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth still celebrate many of the Christmastide traditions such as Boxing Day, plum pudding, and Wassail.

When the early colonists came to the new world from England, they adapted their own version of the twelve days for their new country.  This version acquired variations through the years becoming uniquely American.    It is believed the the Christmas wreath originated with the colonists who made these decorations for their doors out of the local pine.  It was tradition to make these on Christmas Eve and then to hang them on the door through either the Twelfth Night or Epiphany morning. 

The Twelfth Day, Epiphany, is the day set aside to remember the visit of the Magi (wise men), or kings from the east.  In many countries, a king's cake, is baked for Epiphany.  The cake is baked with a real fava bean inside.  Whoever finds the fève is obligated to provide the cake next year.  His partner, likewise, is obligated to provide next year's champagne.  In some English-speaking countries, it is believed to be unlucky to leave Christmas decorations up past the Twelfth Night or Epiphany morning, though in non-English speaking countries, they are often left up until Candlemas (February 2nd).

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Hanukkah (or Chanukah) Customs

Hanukkah is an eight day holiday which marks the miraculous victory of the Jews, led by the Maccabees, against Greek persecution and religious oppression. In addition to being victorious in war, a miracle occurred.  When they came to rededicate the Temple, they found only one flask of oil with which to light the Menorah. This small flask lasted for eight days. In order to commemorate this miracle, Jews light a Menorah for the eight days of Hanukkah.

Hanukkah is not a Jewish version of Christmas. Although it is celebrated the same time of year, Hanukkah commemorates the physical and spiritual victory of the Jews over the Greeks more than 2,000 years ago.

Hanukkah is also known as the:
o   Festival of Lights, since the flame in the Temple burned miraculously for eight days.
o   Feast of Dedication, since the Temple was rededicated after being desecrated.

Hanukkah is celebrated from 25 Kislev - 2 Tevet, according to the Jewish calendar, which is lunar, so it falls on different dates each year. This year Hanukkah began the evening of December 8, 2012. Remember that all Jewish holidays begin at sundown the evening before. 

One way Hanukkah is celebrated is through food.  Because the oil in the lamps lasted for eight days, during Hanukkah Jewish people eat foods fried in oil.  Most often this is latkes (fried potato pancakes) and deep fried donuts.  Cheese is also eaten in remembrance of how one of the greatest victories against the Maccabees was gained by feeding the enemy cheese.

Children play with the dreidel in remembrance of the brave children who lived during the time of the conquering Greeks.  Every effort was made by the Greeks to force Hellenism upon the Jews at the expense of teaching Jewish Law and the Torah schools were closed.  Hence, Jewish Law had to be taught to the children in secret in the forest.  When the Greek patrols would come by, the children would hide their books and play with tops to cover what they were doing in the woods.  Today, four Hebrew letters are on the dreidel and they are an acronym for “Nes Gadol Hayah Sham”—a great miracle happened there.

Because Hanukkah is associated so closely with the education of children, it is also customary to give Chanukah gelt (money) to children on each of the 8 days of the season.  This enables the children to be taught about giving to charity from out of what one has in order to honor G-d.  The Jews remember that the Greeks did not take their possessions but rather defiled them by using them for impure pursuits.

Spiritually, Jews celebrate Hanukkah in the morning prayer service each day by reciting the complete Hallel (Psalms 113-118) and reading from the Torah about the offerings brought at the dedication of the Tabernacle.  This is a reminder to them of the Maccabean rededication of the Temple after it had been defiled by the Greeks.  A special prayer of thanksgiving (V’al Hanissim) is also inserted in the prayers and grace after meals during Hanukkah.

It is intended that the Menorah be lit by every Jew everywhere during Hanukkah in remembrance of the Menorah that burned miraculously for eight days.  Candles can be used but ideally, olive oil is considered to be more representative.  In the Torah, we see the Menorah in the first and second Temples described as having had seven branches.  After the Temples' destruction, a tradition arose among the Jewish people that nothing from the Temple should be duplicated so Menorahs began to appear having six branches.  The Hanukkah Menorah, however, has nine branches: eight to hold the oil or candles to be burned during the eight days of Hanukkah and one to hold the Shamash, which is used to light the other candles.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

The Evolution of Saint Nicholas

St. Nicholas was born in the third century in Turkey, in a village then known as Patara, Lycia to a wealthy family.  Nicholas dedicated his life to serving God and was made Bishop of Myra while still a young man. Bishop Nicholas became known throughout the land for his generosity to those in need, his love for children, and his concern for sailors and ships.

It is said that Nicholas once learned of a poor man who had three daughters.  Because their father could not afford a dowry for them, the daughters had no hope of marriage and would be sold into slavery.  This would sentence them to a certain life of prostitution.  On three separate evenings, Bishop Nicholas threw a bag of gold through an upstairs window providing a dowry for each of the daughters, thus saving them from being sold.  As the story goes, the bags of gold landed in stockings hanging by the fire to dry and in shoes placed on the hearth.

St. Nicholas Day is celebrated each year on the anniversary of his death - Dec 6, 343.  Dressed in his red bishop’s robes, he is said to bring gifts to children just as he did in many of the stories told about him through the ages.  And, in memory of the three daughters he saved from being sold into slavery, he comes early while the children are still sleeping and leaves presents. Before children go to sleep they place a bowl or plate under their bed, hang a stocking by the fireplace or put a pair of shoes in front of the door (varies by country).  In Europe, this early advent gift-giving on St. Nicholas Day helps to preserve a Christmas Day focus on the Christ Child.

In Germany, Martin Luther replaced the name of the gift bringer with the Christ Child, or, in German, Christkindl.  Through the years, this was eventually mispronounced enough that it became Kriss Kringle, another name by which we know St. Nicholas.  But, brought to the United States by immigrants, the English speaking children often mispronounced the Dutch version of his name, Sinterklaas, and he eventually became known to us here in the U.S. as Santa Claus. 

Now, in order to convince folks that Coke was not just a summer drink, the Coca-Cola Company began featuring Santa on their bottles to depict the idea that the beverage could be consumed at any time of the year. Until that time, Santa had traditionally worn Nicholas' red bishop’s robe, as we see on early Santa figures; he changed from Bishop’s attire to a red suit with trousers in the United States when he began appearing on the Coke bottles. 

Today, St. Nicholas continues to evolve each year as songs, television specials, and movies spin new and ever changing details about Santa, reindeer, and the North Pole.  Changing at a pace never before seen, it is my belief that our children’s children will know a completely different St. Nick than we do today as he is already hardly recognizable as the Bishop of Myra. 

Saturday, December 1, 2012

The Nutcracker

The original German nutcrackers (Nussknackers) were developed in the Erzgebirge region of Germany.  Many of the village people worked in the Ore Mountains in the mines, but during the winter months, wood carving was the main source of income for poor families.  Life was hard for the miners who worked long hours and were often taken advantage of by their superiors.  Since Germans sometimes say someone has "a hard nut to crack" if they mean that the person is having difficulties, the 18th century woodworkers who created the now traditional form of nutcracker made the nutcracker figures in the shape of the people who made life difficult.  Thus, the nutcrackers were made to resemble kings, soldiers, and other authority figures.  While in everyday life the lower classes were at the mercy of sometimes harsh authorities, in their homes the tables could be turned by making figures of those authorities perform work for the poorer people.  

Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Story of the Advent Wreath

I have never really liked the term "Black Friday".  Not being a fan of shopping, the idea of going near a store on this, the retail extravaganza of the year, is incredibly horrifying to me.  To follow a day of giving thanks to our Heavenly Father for all His good gifts by such an extreme commercial act just seems the wrong way to start Christmas somehow.  We have made it our tradition, instead, to drag out the Christmas decorations, tree, etc. and transform our home.  It is the official start of the Christmas season at our house.

That is what the word advent means... the beginning, commencement, onset.  It is a season of waiting.  For Christians, we celebrate not only the ancient coming of the Messiah to be born in Bethlehem, but we also anticipate and prepare for His ultimate return at the Second Coming.  The advent season begins with the fourth Sunday before Christmas, which coincidentally just happens to be the Sunday closest to my birthday (November 30th).  Thus, it is always easy for me to remember.

Advent is a season of expectation and anticipation.  It should be a time of preparation and hope for the Messiah who will bring peace and righteousness into the world. The advent ring (wreath) is designed to reflect the Christmas story and the promise it holds to all people. 

The wreath is a circle which reminds us of God Himself.  He is eternal, without beginning or end.  The life and salvation He offers is also eternal which is symbolized in the evergreens woven into the wreath.  As the winter comes and the leaves die on the other trees, the life remains visible in the evergreens throughout the long, cold months.  Candles symbolize light.  Jesus brings light into a world of darkness and sin.  And when we accept Jesus as our Savior, we are called to become the light of the world.  As more people become Christians, the light shines brighter and brighter and spreads.

The four candles in the circle are for the four Sundays before Christmas.  Three are purple and one is pink.  Purple is, of course, the color of royalty, as Christ is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.  The pink candle is used on the third of the four Sundays, and is the joy candle.  In some circles it is called Gaudete Sunday, from the Latin word for "rejoice".  The pink represents a change of emphasis, for one week, from the repentence before the Lord, to celebration and rejoicing at the coming of the King and the salvation that He will bring.  The fourth week marks a return to the preparation phase and a purple candle acknowledging His royalty and Kingship.  The four candles, or weeks, represent a time of waiting, and represent as follows:
  1. Prophets - Hope
  2. Bethlehem - Love
  3. Shepherds - Joy
  4. Angels - Peace.
 The first candle is lit the first Sunday.  An additional candle is lit each succeeding Sunday until all four are lit on the final Sunday before Christmas representing how the light and love of Christ spreads gradually throughout the world.  A large, white candle stands in the center of the wreath.  It is white for purity and righteousness.  It is the Christ candle and is lit on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day.  It reminds us that Christ is the center of our celebration and brings light into the world.  For many, the candles will burn through Epiphany (January 6th) or the twelfth day of Christmas.

As we enter this advent season, it will be my sincere desire to put aside busyness and the commercial trappings of the Christmas retailers and examine my heart in preparation for the Coming King.  Who will join me in the pursuit of a pure heart as we seek to find the hope, love, joy, and peace that only Christ the King can bring?

Thursday, November 8, 2012

The Lucky Tree

People call it The Lucky Tree.  It stands outside of Wichita headed Northwest on K-96 in the big curve in the road just a little bit past Maize and not quite to the Bentley exit.  It is an easily recognizable landmark along the highway and people honk as they drive by for good luck and safe travel on their way to many destinations.  This cottonwood has been a Kansas tradition for a long time. 
Some folks have told me that their grandparents honked at this tree or that it was a family tradition growing up.  High school teams traveling by in busses are careful to never risk their fate by not paying homage as they pass.  School colors are often seen tied to the tree as well as yellow ribbons for the troops.  And after September 11, this tree proudly wore the American flag.
While everyone agrees that they must pay their respects to the tree, correct protocol seems to be a matter of individual taste.  Some say its a honk and a wave or a tip of your hat.  Others say you honk once for each person in the car or once for each year of your age.  Did you remember to hold your feet off the floor as we passed?  Or close your eyes and shout?  Just make sure you don't forget the next time you drive by.
Once, in the 1990s, KDOT thought about cutting down the tree to reroute the highway.  This did not set well with the local community and so Hutchinson Rep. Jan Pauls worked in Topeka to get a Safe Tree Order into the highway plans so the tree would be protected.  Much of Kansas breathed a sigh of relief.  The truth is, this tree has become so popular, it now even has its own Facebook group "We always honk at the lucky tree outside of Wichita!" with over 3000 members.  (A group I just joined, by the way!) 

I may not be a Kansas by birth but I have lived here many years and this is a tradition I have embraced wth great enthusiasm.  Perhaps my grandchildren will someday go on Facebook and say, "My grandmother honked at this tree!"   I hope so.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Saving The Morning Light

While serving as U.S. ambassador to France in 1784, Benjamin Franklin suggested to the Parisians that by rising earlier, they could make use of the morning sunlight to accomplish more of their daily tasks thus saving on candle wax.  Way back then, the Parisians were known for sleeping well past noon.  Though Ben never actually suggested changing the time on the clocks, he is often credited with inventing daylight saving time as well as the phrase, "Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise."

The idea to actually change the clocks was proposed in 1895 by a shift worker in New Zealand named George Vernon Hudson.  Because Hudson did shift work, he had extra time in the evenings to pursue insect collecting.  George Hudson proposed that the clocks be moved two hours in the summer to allow for additional sunlight time in the evenings so that he could pursue entomology.  The clocks could then be returned to 'standard' time in the fall to bring the sunlight back to the morning hours.  Though this was never implemented in Hudson's lifetime, he did go on to become a famous entomologist. 

In 1905, a builder named William Willett began proposing the idea in England but Daylight Saving Time never became a reality until WWI.  It was implemented in 1916 in Manitoba, followed shortly by Germany and its allies and then a little later by Britain and her allies.  It was intended as a means to conserve coal (and incandescent lighting) during the war.  Russia followed suit and implemented in 1917 with the United States finally coming around in 1918.  While it is still practiced today and continues to provide extended sunlight in the summer evenings, it is quite controversial and the debate continues over whether it ever actually helped to conserve any energy.  It remains the subject of much lobbying in our nations's capitol.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

I've often heard it said that our vote honors a veteran.  As we approach this upcoming election, how many of us really think about the men and women who have given their lives so that we can have the priviledge to be able to vote?  I was fortunate, having spent ten years in the U.S. Air Force, that the need to fight a war never came up during my term of service.  But I still am filled with gratitude for those who answered the call and I try to make it a point to vote whenever I can...  out of respect.

Many people find it a bother to vote, particularly in the bigger elections like the one approaching in two weeks.  With The Office of The President of the United States on the ballet, the lines will be long and some will balk at the time investment required.  Will their one vote even matter in the long run?  I know here in Kansas, many people believe it is pointless to vote in presidential elections since the Kansas electoral votes always go to the Republican candidate.  You know that before the election even begins.  Presidential candidates don't even campaign in Kansas and many folks see no point in the whole affair.

Myself, though I am a diehard voter, I also feel no great desire to stand in long lines so this election I requested an advance ballot as did my husband.  This week, our ballots arrived in the mail and we immediately sat down to complete them so they could be returned in time to be counted.    The first few offices were easy.  They were federal offices... choose your candidate, fill in the dots, easy enough.  Then there were the states offices (senate and house of representatives) in our district along with a lengthy list of local races.  For each of the state offices as well as the other choices on the ballot (except for one, I believe), there was only a Republican candidate running unopposed.  The other parties had not offered a candidate.  I cannot speak for the other districts in Kansas, or even in Wichita, but that is what was offered on the ballot in my district.  I was stunned.

Now, this does not necessarily bother me because I favor one party or the other but rather because it speaks of a larger loss of participation in the process as a whole.  Where are the choices and what has happened to the two party system?  This goes way beyond voter apathy.  Is anyone else disillusioned by this?

Thursday, October 18, 2012


Get out the Lederhosen and Steins!  It’s time for Gemütlichkeit - the festive spirit of Oktoberfest.  This Bavarian festival originated in Munich, but has become so popular it is celebrated in countless cities around the world. 

Oktoberfest, 16 days of drinking, eating, singing and dancing, originally began in October.  Because of the bad weather at this time of the year, the festival schedule was changed in 1880.  Now Oktoberfest begins on a Samstag (Saturday) in September and ends the first Sonntag (Sunday) in Oktober.  With the exception of wartime, Oktoberfests have been held in Munich for almost 200 years.  On opening day, the festival comes alive just as the clock of St. Paul's Church strikes twelve noon.  The Burgermeister enters one of the beer tents, taps the first cask, and heartily drinks the first Stein during a 12 cannon salute. 

The first Oktoberfest occurred October 17, 1810 when King Maximillian of Bavaria gave a reception to celebrate the wedding of his son, Prince Ludwig, and Princess Therese of Sachsen-Hildburghausen. Held in a large meadow (Wiese) in Munich, the entertainment included a horse race staged for 40,000 people from all over Bavaria.  The party was so successful that King Maximillian decided to hold one every year in the meadow, which was then named Theresien-wiese after Ludwig's bride.  Eventually, the horse races were replaced by agricultural shows and parades.

Oktoberfest is not just a festival…it’s also a style of beer (Bier).  As it happened, the 1810 wedding festival occurred just about the time the spring's stockpile of Bier had to be depleted to make room for the fall production. March (März) was the last month that Bier was made since Bier made in the warmer months usually acquired a foul taste. Being that alcohol is a natural preservative, this Bier was made with a higher alcohol content (about 5%) to get through the warmer months.  Full-bodied, they are known as Oktoberfest or Marzen, contain almost no hops and have a sweet, malty taste.  An Oktoberfest is brewed much like the reddish-amber Marzen that was served at Ludwig's wedding in 1810. Before refrigeration brought about a revolution in brewing, Bier was brewed in March, lagered or cold-stored in caves for 10-12 weeks, and ready to drink by the late summer or early fall.

The Oktoberfest celebration is steeped with tradition.  In the Biergarten, if a stein is in one hand, the other usually holds a Wurst or sausage.  The keg is tapped while the oom-pah band plays Trinklieder (drinking songs).  Polka, yodeling, and a Maypole dance (Webentanz) can be seen around the Fruchtsäule (a harvest monument constructed of seeds from fresh fruits, nuts, and vegetables).  Schuhplattler, a dance from the alpine country, is also performed wearing the traditional Bavarian costumes, Dirndls and Lederhosen.

As German immigrants came to the United States, smaller Oktoberfests were held in their communities and today, Munich and Cincinnati compete to be the site of the world's largest Oktoberfest.
Whether you are planning a trip to Munich or just looking for a local celebration, you should take the time to experience the warm friendliness, or Gemütlichkeit, of Oktoberfest.  As they say, all work and no play…

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

As a former foster parent for the state of Kansas, I wanted to write a book describing what life was like in a foster home and how children are affected by the way the system functions.  This week I made my recently published book, A Sibling Group of Three, available for free download to all our elected officials in Topeka in the hope that they might gain better understanding of the problems to be tackled.  This book is fiction, but I believe it is very representative of reality and I was quite pleased to see that 144 people took me up on my offer.  This was quite a lot more than I expected.  It gives me renewed faith in our state lawmakers that they care about these children and are interested in doing what is best for them.  It encourages me in this election year.